Wiring The Ivory Tower

WHEN CALIFORNIA State University administrators drew up plans for their newest campus, scheduled to open this fall at the old Fort Ord site in Monterey Bay, one building was conspicuous absent from their blueprints: the library. But as Barry Munitz, chancellor of the 22-campus system, sees it, why bother wasting all that money on bricks and mortar and expensive tomes when it could be better spent on technology for getting information via computer? "You simply don't have to build a traditional library these days," Munitz says.

Few places are so awash in information technology as the nation's college campuses. And thanks to the explosive growth of the Internet, universities have intensified their efforts to become fully networked. As a result, the last few years have seen sweeping changes in the way computers and computer networks are being used in both administrative functions and instruction.

It's now de rigueur for a college or university to have a presence on the World Wide Web, the interlinked digital archive for thousands of Internet users. Those that don't have their own home page (an opening screen with a list of contents) are considered hopelessly backward. Many students now set up personal Web pages. And more and more instructors are putting syllabuses, lecture notes, tests and student comments on the Internet. A couple of years ago the University of Pennsylvania, like many institutions, provided all students with e-mail accounts. "It was a small jump to say, "If you'd like to use some of the space we've allocated for e-mail to set up your own home page, we'll show you how'," says Daniel A. Updegrove, Penn's associate vice provost for information systems and computing. "The effect on students has been tremendous; they go from passive browsers to writers, reporters and publishers."

Even those fields that were traditionally low tech are increasingly dependent on computers and networking. "We used to be able to teach an architecture student with a T square, a few pencils and some triangles," says Lawrence Speck, dean of the school of architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. "Now we need a $5,000 workstation, with peripherals and software, and a staff to run the laboratories. It's a mind-boggling change in the educational enterprise." And an expensive one. At a time when tuitions are already out of sight, colleges are having to spend millions to keep up with the state of the art.

Term papers are now multimedia events. For her microanatomv class, Molly Armstrong, a junior at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, took images of the heart of a chick embryo from microscope slides, transferred them to a computer, created a rotating, 3-D model and presented it on videotape. Writing students at Stanford University use "computer-mediated communication" to exchange essay drafts over a local network. "Electronic discussions encourage more widespread participation," says Richard Holeton, coordinator of Stanford's computers and writing project. "It gives students a more visceral sense of audience, a community of readers who take their ideas and their writing seriously."

Then there was the mapping project at the University of Pennsylvania. For his senior project there, Nathan Gasser took a standard outline map of the campus and turned it into a Web site. Click on an outline of the building and you see a color photo of the building with historical information. Click on the library and you're linked to the electronic catalog. Gasser's reputation as a Web wizard spread and a Philadelphiawide group asked him to create a similar map of the city.

To be a totally hip campus is to be totally wired. That means installing a high-speed network that spans from the bursar's office to the library to the freshman dorms. "The network has to be like air," says Cecilia d'Oliveira, director of distributed computing and network services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "You don't even think about it, but it's everywhere."

Working toward a "one port per pillow" standard that is sweeping much of higher education, the University of Pennsylvania is in the process of wiring all its undergraduate residence halls. "There are basically four jacks by each bed," says Updegrove. "A cable-TV line, a 10-megabit Ethernet connection, a common phone line and private phone line." This, he says, will make it possible for a student to be plugged into the Internet while watching an instructional cable-television show about surfing the Net -- all while chatting on the phone.

Still, a network is useless unless you have a computer to plug into it. A handful of schools now require that incoming freshmen own personal computers. Dartmouth College has had such a requirement for three years. "Network connectivity has become essential in conducting even the basics of academic business," says Lawrence Levine, Dartmouth's director of computing services. "The requirement ensures students full access to the academic milieu." Three campuses in the California State University system have proposed similar requirement, giving careful con sideration to making such a purchase affordable. At private institutions in particular, a majority of students already own computers. At Stanford, about 65 percent of incoming students already own machines. At Northwestern University, 70 percent of undergraduates do.

Most schools cluster machines in computer labs. The University of Texas at Austin built a microcomputer center, equipped with 200 computers, using money from a $150-perstudent computer fee. Carved into existing stacks of the undergraduate library, the $2 million center has displaced about 85,000 books. Other schools, citing rapid obsolescence and space shortages, are moving away from labs and wiring dormitories instead. Each room is hooked up to the campus network, and through it to the Internet at large. "Students can sit in their residencehall room and access online card catalogs, reserve a book and find out which of the 27 libraries it sits in," says Alan J. Levy, director of public affairs for university housing at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which has an Ethernet network installed throughout much of its campus (Ethernet uses its own cable rather than phone lines and modems). "They can register for classes, change, drop and add courses, call up their transcripts, change their address and access their most current student account. And they don't have to go near an office to do it."

Nor do they have to be hunched in a library carrel. Cal State's bold decision against a library is an extreme example of an existing trend. At Northwestern, the library has embarked on a project called the Electronic Reserve, which makes images, text, past exams and other material available on a library server, a computer hooked to the campus network. Scores of other schools are digitizing their library, resources, too.

As students and professors become increasingly dependent on electronic mail, the traditional notion of office hours is vanishing as well. Faculty members now send out assignments via e-mail. Many students feel freer to communicate with their ssors this way because they're more comfortable asking questions at a safe remove.

At MIT, a student who wants to talk about a particular problem at 2 a.m. doesn't have to wander the dormitory halls looking for slits of light under doorways. Instead, the student posts a message on Zephyr, MIT's instant-message svstem devoted to specific topics many of them classroom-related-where similarly stumpe students are likely to be dis cussing precisely that problem.

Ethernet is fast but man schools, in anticipation of a demand to send video signals via computer, are already moving toward higher-speed connections. Cornell University is planning to transform its campus network into an ultra-highspeed network that could run 100 or more times faster than the standard Ethernet speed, capable of carrying full-motion video, audio and data -- simultaneously over one line.

What's driving the rush to get wired? Competition among schools is one thing. "There are fewer students, rising costs and changes in government funding for research," says Sandra Senti, director of networking systems at Stanford, which is spending millions on networking technology. Penn's Updegrove agrees. "We would not be comfortable if prospective students and parents noticed that the dorms at Yale, MIT and Stanford are wired and we're not," he says. But there is something else as well. "Our students are going to graduate in a wired world," says Updegrove. "They're going to have to collect and analyze information and do their business in an environment in which we have instantaneous multimedia access."

They're moving into a world that is so wired, in fact, that students can graduate without ever setting foot on a campus. For more than a decade, televised classes, or distance learning, have been used for continuing education and to teach in remote areas of the country. Advances in technology and the growth of the Internet promise to take the concept mainstream.

Last spring, 10 University of Pennsylvania students registered for a seminar on Saint Augustine. Students posted a summary of each class to the Internet, attracting some 300 electronic hangers-on from as far away as Istanbul, some of them Augustine scholars. The class was so successful that the professor taught another class last fall in the same manner. This time the university charged tuition and offered course credit.

Carnegie Mellon University is experimenting with what it calls "just in time" lectures, where students see video pictures on their workstations and send video e-mail messages to the instructor, who responds through another video clip. Each interaction is archived so that subsequent students can search to see if a question has already been answered, building a library of questions and answers. "This could completely break down the structure of students sitting in classroms in front of lecturers," says Stephen Director, dean of the College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

And that raises concerns for some academicians, mostly from the old school, who maintain a distinction between information and knowledge, and believe that the latter still requires a live teacher. They worry, as Thoreau did in his day, that we are in danger of becoming the tools of our tools. And those tools are getting smarter by the day.