Fingers dance over keyboards as mouse clicks emanate from all corners of the room in a faint but steady chorus. Plains of florescent lights overhead drone uninterrupted in this atmosphere of quiet concentration but for the periodic questions to the consultant behind the front desk in the gray Center for Academic Computing, CAC, shirt.
This could be a description of any one of the 14 CAC computer labs located across the campus where CAC consultants are stationed to answer users' questions about hardware and software.
The User Services Group of the CAC created the lab consultant position in the early nineties. Previously, attendants were assigned to each lab simply to oversee the security and general upkeep of equipment. However, people who used the labs frequently asked questions the lab attendants had not been formally trained to answer. The need for specialized lab consultants became clear.
Seventy-five students, mainly sophomores and juniors, make up the staff you see in the 14 CAC labs which offer regular consulting hours.
Because the lab consultants are often the only contact a user may have with the Center for Academic Computing, the responsibilities of this position are not taken lightly. Applicants are hired based both on the extent of their technical experience and their ability to interact with people.
Consultants receive three days of training at the beginning of each semester. During training, Henry Moeller, the Lab Consultant Supervisor, and his colleagues review the software and hardware installed in the computer labs with the newly hired consultants. They detail preferred methods for assisting users, make known the best resources for references, and explain the CAC's expectations and policy.
Moeller advises consultants to treat the user as a customer. The lab consultant "should aim to help the user solve his/her problem, or be able to refer him/her to someone who can." But consultants are not simply placed in labs to solve problems. They are reminded to view every request for assistance as an opportunity to educate. Consultants are encouraged to leave the mouse in the hands of the user and to walk him or her through the steps of resolving the problem with verbal and visual cues. Senior consultants know from experience that most people want to solve problems for themselves and that when they teach the user how to solve his/her own problem, it's one less question for the consultant to answer the next time.
Consultants are prepared to answer questions about a myriad of computer-related subjects varying from access accounts to commands in a specific software package or on a specific platform (i.e. How do I set margins in Word? or How do I print on a Mac?).
A consultant can even check the current lab use page, http://durin.cac.psu.edu/cgi/labuse.exe, on the web to let you know where to go to find the closest available PC if the lab is full and you're in a rush.
There are, however, a few limits to the service they provide. Consultants cannot be expected to provide personal software instruction to a user, or obviously, to complete coursework for a student. And, though consultants are used to some pretty off-the-wall questions i.e. "What is the capital of Uruguay?", such topics are not covered in training.
The CAC encourages all users to take advantage of the presence of consultants in the labs. Don't hesitate to ask the consultants for assistance; they are there to help you.
For more in-depth instruction on software, programming languages and a wide range of computer-related topics, sign up for one of the free CAC seminars offered at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels (seminar brochures are available in the Computer Building and at the Willard Help Desk). Or, visit the student-designed tutorials (see related article in this issue of the newsletter) available online at http://cac.psu.edu/ets/projects/modules/modhom.htm.
Please direct comments regarding lab consulting service to Henry Moeller, email@example.com.