Thursday, September 24, 2009

The White Glove Test

Readers of a certain age have probably heard of the white glove test. As I understand it, it was a test of cleanliness in which a woman (it was always a woman) wearing a white fabric glove would trace her finger along a tabletop, and it would pass if her glove didn't get dirty. I don't know if this ever actually happened or if it's like the guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who jumped into the Erie Canal and landed on a cow, but the expression survives.

Based on a conversation I had today with some faculty, I'm wondering if we wouldn't benefit from a local variation on the white glove test.

In discussing computers, equipment, and funding, they complained that we spend a lot on brand-new computers that mostly get used for word processing and low-level web surfing, and then don't have the money to pay for minor classroom or equipment repairs. The weird result is that some very cutting-edge stuff gets underused, while some of the classrooms slowly fall into visible shabbiness. The students, seeing with fresh eyes, pick up on the shabbiness immediately, with predictable effects on morale. Since some of the high schools from which they came can be pretty rundown, it confirms an already-present and destructive implied message.

I have to admit there's something to this.

I'm temperamentally allergic to arguments that assume a fall from a golden age ("Students never used to cheat!" Um, yeah, they did.) But even I will concede that new buildings don't stay new forever, and that the damage from partial repairs is cumulative over time. And lower-tech classroom equipment just doesn't get the attention of the high-tech stuff.

As with so many things, these patterns probably made some sense when they first developed. I'm old enough to remember when even a basic computer cost a couple thousand, and even a high-end one couldn't do much beyond word processing, basic math, and maybe email. (I still remember the first time I used a web browser. Within ten minutes, I was convinced that it was an epoch-defining innovation. I still believe that.)

In those days, when the buildings were newer and the computers more expensive, these spending patterns could be defended. Now, not really.

I'm thinking it might make sense to stratify tech purchases based on their likely uses. If a given lab will use computers just for word processing and web surfing, why not go cheap? I write most of my blog posts on a netbook that cost 400 bucks when I bought it, and that probably costs 300 now. For this purpose, it does just fine. (In labs, where we could use desktops, we could go even cheaper.) Then, we could reallocate some of the savings to do a white-glove test of classrooms and labs, and devote money to the lower-tech but still crucial stuff like lighting, blinds, paint, screens, and such.

Wise and worldly readers -- has your college done this? Has it found a sustainable way to keep the boring-but-important low tech stuff in good repair over time? I'm looking for a model I could adapt.