Net gain for students

by Diana Grier Ayton

You may have seen the bright red boxes bolted to tables in campus buildings­or you may not since they're usually surrounded by students.

They're Infopoints, part of a computer system called Operation Open Access, aimed at making the very latest in science information easily available to students.

Unveiled officially last week, the idea was conceived a few years ago to improve computer resources for science undergraduates. Jeff Kwong, V-P (academic) of the Science Undergraduate Society, says the main problem for students was just getting to a computer. "The system was departmentally based. Math students had access to math computers, and so on, but if your department didn't have good facilities, you were out of luck. Also, the computers were usually locked away in rooms which might not be anywhere near where classes took place. We wanted to create a universal system where all science students would have access to any of the computers. We didn't want to create a central room, because science people have classes everywhere. So the idea was to put a few computers in every building, to create a virtual lab."

The first step was to canvass students in a referendum to see if they would be willing to pay $17.50 a semester to improve computer resources. They were­and the deans were willing to match the funding dollar for dollar. Adam Finkelstein, chair of the Infopoint task force, recalls "We suddenly had a big chunk of money and now we had to figure out exactly what to do with it."

So the students approached companies and made some deals. "We also got a lot of software donated from companies like Microsoft. People were amazed at what we got," says Finkelstein. "I guess nobody else had thought to ask. They just assumed the companies wouldn't be willing to give them anything."

Also pitching in were resource people like Computing Centre software systems manager Michael Head, School of Computer Science systems manager Luc Bouliane, and the McGill Computer Store who, Finkelstein says, "have been an incredible help right from the beginning."

The idea was to come up with a system that would be sophisticated yet extremely simple and user-friendly. The student task force put months into designing the system and ironing out the inevitable bugs. "We now have a great system that offers students Internet access and e-mail, but we can also provide the very latest in science software and class notes from professors who are providing us with lots of course material. And it works about 40 times faster than most students' home computers."

Finkelstein says students can log on in one building and "create their own environments," from the options available on-line. "Then when you go to another building and open up your account, it's still there. It's like having a virtual computer follow you around."

The system started with two computers and there are now 21 in buildings all over campus. Another 10 should be installed within a month, with possibly 10 more up and running by fall.

Feedback from students has been great and the team is justifiably proud of what they've done, but Kwong says this is just a start. "The vision that we have of improving computer facilities doesn't just include science students. We'd like to do this for all of McGill, but we have to start somewhere. With a project like this, initiated and run by students, we wanted to set an example­ to show that students can really make a difference."