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IS Survey Will Gauge Student Usage of Athena Clusters

By Jennifer Lane
Contributing Editor

A team of staff and students from Information Systems will be interviewing students in Athena clusters starting this Monday.

The surveys will help IS get a better idea of what students use the clusters for and whether the clusters are meeting student needs, said Naomi B. Schmidt, manager of educational planning and support for Academic Computing Services.

"It is my hope that information about the way in which Athena clusters are being used will be of value to the Council on Technology and Education," said Provost Joel Moses PhD '67. Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning William J. Mitchell will chair the council.

"One of the council's goals will be to review the use of computer and communications technology in our educational programs, both on and off campus," Moses said.

The decision to conduct a survey was made by the Academic Computing Management Group at IS, a policy-making group involved with Athena and academic computing.

As an incentive, students who take the time to complete the interview will get Toscanini's gift certificates.

Athena usage changes with time

The current data that IS has on Athena usage is severely outdated, which shocked both IS staff and Moses, who is responsible for funding academic computing.

"The last survey of Athena use was in the mid-'80s, and Athena was totally different then," Schmidt said. "We didn't have third-party software like Matlab or Framemaker, and the conclusion then was that Athena was used for gaming."

With the addition of third-party software and more powerful machines to the Athena environment, things have changed dramatically, Schmidt said. "We need to respond to what the marketplace brings and what the community needs," she said.

"Any organization that provides services to the community needs to collect data from that community," Schmidt said. "We're just gathering information that we probably should have had in the past, but it's never too late to start."

Interviews probe use of Athena

In order to make the surveys clear and effective, a group of 15 to 20 students and ISstaffers will be responsible for writing them. This group will be conducting interviews in the clusters over the next few weeks, Schmidt said.

The staff members will be wearing hats with the logo "Poll Patrol" so they will be easily to identify as they move through the clusters. The interviews should last about 10 to 15 minutes, she said.

The 12 questions on the survey cover topics that range from students' years and majors and what kind of work they typically use the clusters for to what software they use regularly and how many hours per week they spend logged in.

Athena equipment will change

One question focuses specifically on what percentage of a student's Athena sessions are spent doing "quick" things like electronic mail and Zephyr, Schmidt said.

"We're looking into developing kiosks or expressclusters that have very little on them but e-mail and Zephyr. It would be like an automatic teller machine - you could get in quick and not have to fight with someone writing papers," Schmidt said.

To further balance the load on machines and place appropriate equipment in the clusters, the computing management group will examine what third-party software people are using to determine "how much we need powerful machines versus those that simply do word processing and document preparation," Schmidt said.

"For the past year, we've had Silicon Graphics machines in the clusters that can do high end graphics. We may be moving towards more of a mix of machines," she said.

The survey will continue for a few weeks, and there may be a second round later in the semester depending on the response rate this time, Schmidt said. Results will be available in May.

"We don't expect any drastic changes in the next few years," Schmidt said.

More data will be collected later

In the future, there is more data that IS would like to collect that the survey does not cover, like what percentage of people with Athena accounts actually use the clusters, Schmidt said.

The effect of Resnet on cluster usage has yet to be measured, Schmidt said. The current survey includes questions about whether or not students have computers on MITnet in their dormitory rooms and what kinds of computing they do there.

"We can't do a before-and-after comparison because there was no survey before Resnet. But we're interested in what people do in the clusters versus in their dorm room," Schmidt said.

Students can send e-mail to with their comments.