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Every morning, I check up with some old friends from high school, tell some Penn friends about my new column and coordinate studying with some classmates. Then I get out of bed. The digital revolution is all around us but if we are not careful, the issues of technology and space will isolate us right out of what makes Penn special as a University.

One of my friend’s bulk packs cost $150, and costs of $200 or more are not unheard of. Many students are sighing with relief that course readings and books are migrating to Blackboard, where readings — accessible only to Penn students — are within the fair-use clauses of current copyright law. Certainly, as Penn strives to make education more affordable, this effort to increase access to material at lower costs must be applauded.

Unfortunately, this affordability is coming at the cost of professor-student interactions. Roger Allen, chairman of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department, said he fears the day when he enters a classroom and sees “50-to-60 open laptops.” Allen noted that reading a screen is not the same as going through the text, annotating and highlighting; interacting with physical text produces superior classroom discussion.

For Allen, the implications of the decrease in bulk-pack use mean that Penn needs to work to maintain communication between students and faculty. With a sea of faces staring at online texts, a decrease in communication and an increase in classroom isolation could develop. Allen gracefully does not mention the possibility that of those 50 open laptops, five actually display the course readings, 35 have Facebook open and 10 will “totally start taking notes as soon as they beat this level.”

History professor Alan Kors offers another perspective on the issue of isolation. “The problem with isolation at Penn remains the lack of ‘spaces’ where individuals meet naturally,” he wrote in an e-mail. Allen offered support for this, suggesting that large, impersonal buildings like the high rises contribute to the sense of isolation. Kors believes the “early College House system, on a very limited scale,” accomplished some of the sense of community needed because students from many different backgrounds came together to hear faculty speak each week, but, he added, “the current House system seems to me more nominal than real in terms of bringing people into natural and interesting contact.”

I live comfortably in a college house, and I can think of better uses (read: food) for the money spent on expensive bulk packs that are available online for free. This issue is about more than these examples of isolation. It is about what differentiates Penn from an online university.

Even if online classes were taught by the best professors and supported by the best resources, they would lack a fundamental element that makes Penn unique: other Penn students. At an online university, I can’t carry on a debate with another student after the class ends. And sarcasm doesn’t work over iChat. But if we continue to allow technology and space to isolate us inside and outside of the classroom, we will lose the very essence of an on-campus education.

I would offer a set of snappy solutions that will save the day if Penn President Amy Gutmann would only listen to me, but this issue requires more thought than could be laid out in a 650-word column. Professors and students need to take the initiative to reach out to each other, and Penn needs to provide them the space to do so. But as technology continues advancing, we will need to do more to ensure we don’t embrace science at the expense of camaraderie. The days of bulk packs and textbooks are fading; it falls to all of us to find a way to preserve the benefits they provided.

Sam Bieler is a College sophomore from Ridgewood, N.J. He is a member of the NEC. His e-mail address is Bieler’s Day Off appears on alternating Tuesdays.

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