The dog no longer eats the homework. In the age of laptops and mainframes, the newest excuse for not turning in a term paper is, "My hard drive has a virus." And the mailman doesn't bring your love letter anymore -- it's e-mailed. But while computer technology today pervades its birthplace, the University is in danger of falling behind the cutting edge of the computer revolution. Professors continue to invent new academic programs, but the University is barely keeping up with successive waves of technology that have made computer use increasingly widespread and convenient. Peter Patton, vice provost for information systems and computing, describes the University as "an early follower" in computer technology, making innovations in a few fields and acquiring new technology fast enough to be competitive with other schools. In other ways, however, the University has become reactive, building facilities in response to an increasingly computer-literate student body and growing levels of technology in society. · Today's University students are among the generation that learned to word process at about the same time it learned how to write a book report. And each year, the incoming class has more computer experience and a higher level of comfort with technology than the class before. A study of computer labs in college houses conducted in 1989 found that 78 percent of freshmen surveyed had taken a high school computer course, while only 59 percent of seniors had. Also, freshmen and sophomores were more likely than upperclassmen to have come from a home with a personal computer. In keeping with the growing needs expressed by these students, computer facilities on campus have expanded rapidly in the last few years, with labs accomodating heavy word-processing use installed in residence halls and in the Rosengarten Reserve Room. But the demand for the labs constantly meets the supply. The Rosengarten facility opened last October, and the Macintosh and IBM computers hum 24 hours a day. Students use the facilities for classwork, but these labs also serve an important social function, according to the same 1989 study, which was conducted by Pamela Freyd of the College of General Studies. Students learn to use new software from other people working in the labs, and they give each other emotional support and technical advice. As a result, even students who have computers in their rooms use the labs, and the study concluded that individual computers should not supercede public facilities. "When we began this study, we suspected that such labs would be temporary institutions until such time as every person had his or her own computer," the researchers wrote. "We end this study believing that residential computer labs should become expected campus amenities." Students said that although they did not make computer availability a criterion when they chose schools or residences, the presence of computer labs on campus is an asset. · Among faculty, the speed with which computer technology has overtaken the academic establishment has caused some pressing problems. Professors said they do not have adequate access to personal computers, while in instructional areas, equipment is being underused. While many faculty members use PennNet, the University's computer network, and 85 percent of the humanities faculty have computer workstations on their desks, some said the facilities and services provided are inadequate. Ronald Arenson, who filled the vice provost for computing post for two years before Patton took over last April, said some professors consider computers are basic equipment, as necessary to their jobs as conventional office tools. "There are some faculty in a school like Arts and Sciences, they feel they haven't gotten the support they would have wished for," he said. "Their argument is they're provided with telephones, and the computer is the same kind of tool. ]They say[ it's not a privilege, it's a right." The number of faculty using computers in the classroom is also still limited. Arenson also said the school is weak in encouraging faculty to use computers for teaching providing support for those efforts. A few professors do use new, high-profile instructional tools in the classroom. And several systems have been developed that have targeted the college market. An interactive videodisk program called the Cinema project, for example, received nationwide attention in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and professors of foreign languages, anthropology and geology have all brought computers to the liberal arts classroom across the country. But while these special programs are available, the problem of distribution at the University has hindered efforts to integrate computers into the classroom. Only 500 hundred College students per semester are exposed to computers in class. Professors who teach with computers said that the potential for computer instruction is far greater than what they are now using. They also note, however, that expanding computer availability also means training students how to use them -- a costly and time consuming process. Anthropology Professor Harold Dibble, who teaches a course about computer applications in his field, said his department does not have adequate facilities to train students in all the available techniques. "The University seems to be putting money into big computer labs to reach as many people as possible," he said. "My problem is that archaeology is its a little weird. You can't expect a lab geared to a wide range of courses to address that." And many of the faculty members themselves are unfamiliar with computers and feel uncomfortable applying them to traditional lessons. SAS Dean Rosemary Stevens said earlier this year that the generation gap between professors and students could lead to problems. "A lot of faculty have not had the advantage that a lot of students have of growing up with just the acceptance of a level of technology which is now basic technology for your generation but was not basic technology for my generation," Stevens said. And John Abercrombie, assistant dean for humanities computing, said revolutionary trends in computer use will outstrip human acceptance of those uses. "[Use of new techniques] has more to do with the receptability of the faculty than the ability to use technology for those purposes," Abercrombie said. One of the University's acknowledged strengths in the computing field is planning. Two years ago, a report called Planning for the 21st Century set a series of five-year objectives for computing, including increasing support for instructional and administrative uses, ensuring computing capacity for research, and providing networking facilities to students. But as the five year plan for computer development reaches its half-way mark, the University follows behind other schools as they move into an era of convenient, personal technology. Arenson said the biggest obstacle to making computers universal is cost, both to the school and to students. "We'd like to have every faculty member on PennNet and everyone to have his own workstation," he said. "We can't afford for have students to have computers across the board. We're afraid to make them compulsory for classwork and the like because it's a tremendous burden." However, the University taking a major step in the direction of widespread student computer use by introducing electronic mail -- a computer communications network -- to students in the College next year. A committee on e-mail will submit its recommendations to Provost Michael Aiken in November, and according to Vice Dean for Computing Ben Goldstein, every student will be issued an e-mail account by the end of 1992. Students in the Engineering School currently use e-mail, and it is accessible to College students under special circumstances, but the spread of availability means that terminals that can access the e-mail network will be installed in more dormitories and public places. The e-mail network will not be installed in dorm rooms as it is at some other colleges. Students who wish to access it from their rooms will have to purchase modems. Universal e-mail will also enable students to communicate with their professors for assignments and feedback and to access Internet, an international computer network. Vice Provost for Computing Patton said his goal is to bring the University out of its "early follower" position and into a stage of intensive use of computers, branching out into new fields as they are discovered. This intensification will require greater spending on computing. Patton estimates that to reach that stage, a school must spend three percent of its annual budget, and the University currently falls shy of that point by about $10 million. But the vice provost predicted that the University will be able to provide desktop computing to an increasingly large proportion of the faculty as personal computers become cheaper. And for students, the future holds more interaction with computers in the public areas of the University. From PARIS, the computerized registration system installed two years ago, to increasingly sophisticated computerized data bases in the library, students are constantly interacting with computers to get information. But for personal computing, they must still rely on equipment they bring from home. When next year's introduction of e-mail creates a widespread student network, that equipment will have greater value on campus. The pace of computer development is much faster than academia's tradition-bound growth. The University's task for the next decade is not to get left behind.Comments powered by Disqus
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