Vol. XII, No. 2

Fall, 1999

Requiring Students to Use Computers - The Time Has Come

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

In recent issues of the CSA Newsletter I have written often about concerns that archaeology graduate students lack important computing skills. (See "Digital Data As Publication - Are We Ready?" Spring, 1998 issue; "CAD and GIS Data Usage," Fall, 1998 issue; "Ethical Responsibilities?" Winter, 1999, issue.) Perhaps the best summary of my concern was in the second of those articles, where I said, "Many [students] see themselves as computer literate if they can surf the Web, send email, and use a word processor." Thinking themselves to be skillful with computers, those students do not understand how much they still do not know about computers - particularly about valuable but hard-to-learn programs such as database management, CAD, and GIS. As a result, those students suffer from three problems: first, they lack the skills to use the programs that are required to access digital data in many forms. Second, they lack the expertise necessary to evaluate data generated by those programs. Third, they lack the general knowledge of software necessary to know what tool(s) should be used for a specific job. Those are serious problems, and I decided I needed to start asking students about their computer experience to see if my concerns were valid.

So far, I have questioned two groups of students to test my assumptions. First, while giving a talk to graduate students at an American university in the spring, I asked the students how many of them considered themselves computer-savvy. All raised their hands, most with confidence. But, of the fifteen or so in the room, only one or two had any experience with databases, CAD, or GIS, and those who responded were extremely tentative when raising their hands. Later in the year I had a similar experience with some undergraduate archaeology students outside the U.S.

It also seemed that, to have a proper basis for speaking out forcefully, I should survey graduate programs. So I have taken a very unscientific poll of graduate programs to find out what is being required of students in archaeology programs in the U.S. I made no attempt to talk to a large sample, but I did try to choose well-respected graduate programs.

In short, the results confirmed my fears. Some of the programs include computer components and may encourage sophisticated approaches to data, but none requires demonstrated proficiency with databases, CAD, or GIS programs, much less all three.

Given that situation, what can be expected of the graduates? In many cases, the graduates have truly impressive skills, but those skills have been developed by students in response to special needs or talents of their own, and the skills tend to be with very specific tools they have needed for their own projects. Meanwhile, those students lack experience with other software tools, and many of their colleagues are not prepared to use any of the more sophisticated types of computer programs. As a result, too few of the graduates are prepared to use modern software, to evaluate the results of research expressed in complex data forms, or to make effective use of digital data from the work of others - either to re-examine prior scholarship or to combine data from various sources.

Some would argue that the computer skills required will be easily learned by those who are coming into the field - those who have been using computers since they were children. I disagree. Complex programs are difficult to learn, whether one is familiar with computers or not. These are not the programs with which computer users are necessarily familiar.

Others insist that, when faced with a serious research need, a scholar can learn to use a new and important tool, whether that tool is a computer or a dictionary for an unfamiliar foreign language. Surely that is possible, but it seems to me that, when it comes to these important computer tools, we should not leave to chance the education of the next generation of archaeologists. That is what we have been doing, and to continue to do so seems irresponsible. Archaeologists must have genuine competence with a variety of sophisticated computer applications if they are to participate fully in the work of the discipline in the coming century. I think graduate programs must ensure that competence.

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II'

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For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

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