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Nascent vision of technology: Help desks and FAQs that teach

March 4, 2011

Previously, I’ve written about my vision of an IT department. It just so happens that as a assistant debate coach, I got to witness a great example of this vision just a few days ago.

First, if you aren’t familiar with the debate world, I need to give you a bit of background. A couple of years ago, policy debate teams began to get tired of lugging 5-6 Rubbermaid 14 gallon tubs filled with accordion files filled with paper (evidence) that is used in the debate (luggage fees also helped end this practice). So they switched to paperless, laptop based systems. The technology requirements of a debate team are pretty unique. Teams need to be able to sort through tens of thousands of pages of evidence (sorted into files that are hundreds of pages long) and be able to assemble an 8 minute speech in less than a minute. And you need to be able to transfer those speeches to two additional computers (your partner’s and a viewing computer you must supply to the other team). The debate world has been remarkably ingenious in transitioning teams to paperless very quickly, some debaters have even written entire add-ons to Microsoft word to speed up the process of creating speeches in word. In fact, almost everything associated with paperless debate, from templates, to rules, to which netbooks make the best viewing computers was researched and developed by debaters. This is a great example of a network of users with an intimate knowledge of the task they need to accomplish working together to make technology work for them.

But the big point is that debate teams fall prey to technological catastrophes just as much as other students. I’ve seen dropped laptops, lost files and almost every other problem you can imagine. Losing your paper the day before it’s due is a big deal. Losing your speech right in the middle of the championship round is a major catastrophe, and so teams work very hard to avoid this. I want to emphasize that the solution isn’t just that kids are digital natives and they’ll figure it out. In fact, often students really struggle with many of the technical aspects of setting their computers up to be effective debate machines, and too often load them up with games and unnecessary junk that make their computers slower and harder to use.

Every once in a while however, a student comes along with a real interest in technology, debate and people. This person becomes the IT department of the team. For us, that person is J a brilliant 15 year old who is singlehandedly responsible for much of our team’s success, and he recently sent out a FAQ about setting up your computer that I thought was so incredible I needed to share it as a paragon of what a FAQ could be. Does the FAQ regarding email/printing/whatever at your school look like this? Is there even a FAQ?

The thing that is so awesome about this FAQ is that not only is it accessible to readers at any level of familiarity with technology, it does more than just answer the most mundane “how do I print? questions. It seeks to teach the reader how to improve, not just with using technology, but with debate.

What would happen if the IT department wrote a FAQ on printing that explained not only how to print your document on campus, but options for going paperless in your classroom, and more?

1) Debate Synergy comes with a save-to-usb option, stick a USB into your computer, give it a second to install if its the first time you are using that particular USB then hit “Ctrl-Shift-S” and it will automatically save the speech to both your own computer and a USB.

2)Crashes, why they happen, what to do when they happen and how to prevent them:
There are a few things related to the way people tend to paperless debate that result in Word freezing up and crashing.
A) Taking a USB out too early and then being stupid:
Don’t worry about taking your USB out of your computer before going through all of that “safely remove” nonsense, it results in faster jump times and probably wont hurt your USB. However, if you are going to take your USB out you need to know when and how to do so. One way that you can easily crash word is by opening a speech from a flash drive, then removing the USB from the computer and then trying to save the speech by means of CTRL-S. When you do this word tries to save the speech to a flash drive that no longer exists. As a result Clippit gets all confused and decides the best solution is to make word stop working for an indefinite period of time. So, the solution? Save speeches to your desktop after opening them, or don’t save jumped speeches at all. Another way to mess up the USB connection and crash word is to take your USB out too early, if you do then word will crash for much the same reason. As a general rule, if your USB is blinking wildly, don’t take it out of your computer yet.
B) Useless Background Junk:
If you use a personal computer for debate create a separate user account for debate things only, and don’t install/download/run any programs on this account that aren’t absolutely essential. The more stuff your computer has to do, the more likely it will mess up. If you use a team computer, don’t install anything that isn’t directly debate-related and approved.
C) Useful Background Junk:
During a debate round you will often have 20+ giant debate files open simultaneously, while to some extent this is inevitable, keep in mind that every file you have open puts further strain on the computer and makes it much more likely for something to freeze up. Be smart about what files you have open, close files after rounds (my Clean-Up program [linked below] should help with this), if you kicked a Security in the block, chances are you don’t need to keep the giant security file open while prepping for the 2nr.
D) Bad computers:
Computers get old fast and debating with an under-powered computer increases the chance of crashes. You should try to get a feel for your computer’s limitations so that you know approximately how much “stuff” it can handle. If you DO have a bad computer you DON’T need to replace it, but you should adjust. Don’t run everything on high graphics, don’t have a million browser tabs open in the background. One way to make a Vista/Win 7 computer run faster during rounds is to open the Start Menu, right click on “Computer” and select “Properties” on the screen that comes up you should see an option like “Advanced System Settings” click on that under the “Advanced” tab there should be a section called performance (towards the top), click the “Settings” button, a list with 4 radio-buttons and and some check-boxes should show up, select the option “Adjust for best performance”. Your screen will not look as pretty as it did before but every thing will work much better and crashes will be less likely. If you are experiencing crashes you should try this.
So, what do you do in the case of a Freeze-up/Crash:
1) My Computer is freezing, help!
Wait a few seconds, sure you are panicking, sure prep is ticking and the judge in growling but often Word will be able to “fix” itself, so just slowly count to ten, take a deep breath and hope everything gets better.
2) It didn’t get better, what now?
Once you are sure everything is a lost cause you should run my “Clean-Up” program (link below) and it will force all word documents to close, hopefully there will be an auto-saved version ready for you to open up.
3) OMG, there is nothing saved! I lost my 2AC, now we lost and I am going to get negative speaks and [insert panic]!
Ok, chances are your speech is lost, calmly ask to use your partner’s computer and start putting together a new speech while your partner tries one last thing on your computer. Partners: (this is a word 2010 fix only) go to “File” then click “Recent”, there should be a list of recent speeches, hopefully some form of your partner’s speech shows up on this list. IF NOT: in the bottom right there is a little icon that says “Recover Unsaved Documents”, click this and look through the folder that comes up. Hopefully some form of the lost speech is in there.
4) The speech isn’t there.
Sorry, you will just have to start over, try to get your act together, help your partner as much as possible and be ready to go off your flow / the top of your head if you are nearly out of prep. Save some prep for the rebuttals or later speeches if at all possible but make sure that you have your current speech together or no amount of prep in the rebuttals will save you.

Some good Debate-Related programs:
1) Synergy, Synergy=good.
2) Word (required), you should look into getting word 2010, the bookstore might have it cheap, or your parent’s office. Word 2010 is substantially better than 2007, DON’T use 2003.
3) Clean-Up: This is a program I wrote, it can be used to close all word documents after a debate round (NOTE: It does not save the word documents but does report a crash the document recovery aspect of word) You can download it here:

Some non-essential programs:
1) Google desktop or similar, allows you to quickly search your computers for files by means of a hot-key, less clicks and can search for words inside files too so that you don’t have to try and guess what file has the block you are looking for, it has lots of good documentation and is fairly easy to use. (NOTE: Google Desktop is great but memory-intensive, don’t try to use it on slow computers)

2)Defrag: Windows comes with a disk defragmenter, try to defrag your hard drive every month or so, for instructions on how to do so follow this link:
De-fragmenting your computer regularly results in a more stable, faster system and keeps your Hard Drive healthy. It’s worth the time it takes to run. Other defragmenters are out there if you want to look around, all of them are good.

3) Game-Booster: this program was designed for gamers who needed to boost their computer’s performance to run memory-intensive games. On slower computers this program can also be a big help in freeing up memory and optimizing settings quickly before a round and then returning everything to normal afterwards. The free version is more than enough, just select the “Switch the Gaming Mode” button and the program will automatically kill useless background processes and change your computer’s settings to high-performance. You can download it here:

4) Debate Copy: A firefox add-on by Gulakov, helps with card-cutting. More info and download link here:

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