Applied Computer Skills


Good college instructors never assume anything. They know that one of the worst things instructors can do is overlook or misunderstand any special software they are expected to use. However, by taking a few precautions an instructor can keep a software surprise from becoming a hard shock.

Software Needs You Need to Know

Before your course starts, and even before you contract to teach a course for the first time, you need to ask a few questions:

  1. Is there special software I am expected to use for teaching purposes?
  2. If so, what software and exactly what version?
  3. What system will I be expected to use? (e.g. Mac , Windows, or other)
  4. Do I have any say in the selection and use of software?
  5. If there is no special software, what constraints are there for me using software?

Answers to these questions will help you avoid serious problems, problems that can potentially end your teaching career shortly after it starts.

Note: A good instructor reviews the course outline and sample syllabi before accepting a teaching position.  These are resources that may answer software questions. But often these documents are generic and may not list the specific software. Even if special software is listed, the release version is probably won’t be included.

Examples of Software Slip-ups


I will explain the kinds of things that can go wrong with a few examples. One of them actually occurred in my division, under my watch so to speak. See if you can guess which one.

Example 1 – A Statistics Course That Doesn’t Add Up

What Else Can Go Wrong?

What Else Can Go Wrong?

You have agreed to teach a basic statistics course. You are a highly skilled statistician and totally up to speed on some of the top-of-the-line software packages like SAS. What you did not expect was that the course is an introductory business statistics course and you are expected to use the Minitab software that students have purchased along with the textbook. Your Minitab experience is Mini-mal.

When it comes to analyzing statistics, there are more software packages than you might guess. Though not considered an authoritative source in academic realms, I turned to Wikipedia where I found a list of more than 100 titles. The probability that you know the right software is fairly low.

Example 2 – An Accounting Course that Fails to Account for Everything
You have lived in Houlton Maine all your life, except that is when you attended the University of Maine. You found a part-time position at New Brunswick Community College (NBCC), a fairly short drive across the border. You will be teaching an accounting class. You have used a number of software packages in the United States, but you’d want to be familiar with something like a Canadian corporate tax software package. Right? You students think so!

Example 3 – An Educational Psychology Course that Psyches You Out
You are about to teach a section of Educational Psychology for a local university. You recently retired from your clinical psychology position and are (questionably?) proud that you never needed to use special software – not during your Ph.D. research and not professionally. You assume that software is not part of this course. Sorry, you are wrong!

On the Psychology Software Distribution website, you can select from nine different software packages. You never even heard of them. Yikes! Now you may need a psychiatrist.

Example 4 – A CAD Solid Modeling Course Not on Solid Ground

You will be teaching a Computer Aided Design (CAD) course for the first time. You are proficient on the major packages like SolidWorks and AutoCAD Inventor, and you learn from the Dean that you are expected to use AutoCAD Inventor for this particular course. Heck, you have even authored a book on AutoCAD. Piece of cake, right?
Unfortunately, you don’t have the latest version. You request an instructor copy, which you receive after the third class session, and you find out that it will not run on your personal computer. Sorry, your “course credibility consequence” is building as the level of student frustration grows while you fumble around with the new menu structure.

Example 5 – An Interior Design Course Poorly Designed

As an interior designer you often use Google SketchUp. It is free. It is powerful. It is something that you can teach your students and enrich their learning experiences. You have spent weeks designing your lesson plans and can’t wait for the first class.
Oops. Many of your students are upset. Half of them drop the course. Why? You failed to consider that when teaching at an inner city trade school, some (many?) of your students will not have home computers, much less high speed connections. No wonder they were upset with your first assignment!

Aside: Which faux pas occurred in my division? It was Example 4 – The CAD Course Not on Solid Ground. Yes, my instructor was an expert and had authored a CAD textbook. Still, she became frustrated when something as simple as installing a new version of software became something she “CAD-n’t” do.

Applying What You Know

No matter what your level of computer savy, don’t take anything for granted. Find out exactly what software title and release you will be using on what operating system. And be sure that it runs on your personal computer.

WARNING: There are two more types software you will most likely be called on to use. If you are teaching for the first time at a college, you must check into this!

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) Software – Most colleges use ERP software to manage institutional information like budgets, strategic planning, accounts receivable, and student enrollments. You will called upon to use it for a variety of purposes – downloading class rosters, entering midterm attendance and/or grades, dropping students, posting final grades and more. You may hear names like Datatel or Banner at your college.

Courseware – Courseware packages provide the online presence for courses. Platforms like Blackboard, Desire2Learn, and Moodle are used at most colleges. You will be required to use your colleges courseware when teaching an online course, and you may have the opportunity to use it to compliment your face-to-face classroom course.

These two types of software will be covered in a future article.

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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