Gadgets rule on college campuses

From Beginning to End, Technology Revolutionizes the College Experience

Today’s college students lug onto campus just as much technology as footlockers, luggage, boxes, and books. Not only do most students have laptops or PCs, but practically all carry smartphones with Internet access, instant messaging, and film and picture-taking functions.

Then, there are those with iPods, MP3 players and a gaggle of other gadgets that keep them occupied nearly 24/7 — as the slang goes. Staying connected is a cinch for students whether they are in the dorm, library, classroom, coffee shop or sprawled on the campus green.

Most university and college campuses are able to keep up. The Campus Computing Project, which has studied the role of computing and information technology in American higher education since 1990, found 75.2% of college courses with a web page in 2014, compared with only 34.2% in 2001; also, use of e-mail in college courses tripled again between 2004 and 2016 (30.1% vs. 91.1%) as did the number of college courses using Internet-based resources, such as listing URLs in a course syllabus (37,4% in 2001 vs. 87.4% in 2001).

This case study examines the trend on college campuses in the use of technology, the way technology revolutionizes the way both the institutions and students work and then offers stimulating questions about technology’s impact on how students prepare for careers and jobs.

Today’s students hooked on laptops, cellphones, e-mail

The American college campus, long an oasis of scholarship and coming-of-age, is now being transformed by a more palpable force: an armada of laptops, smartphones, and perpetual connectivity.

At the University of North Carolina, where every building and most outdoor common areas offer wireless Internet access, sophomore Dax Varkey lugs his laptop everywhere.

In class, he takes notes on the portable computer, sometimes instant-messaging or e-mailing friends if the professor is less than riveting. In his dorm, he instant-messages his roommate a few feet away. He’s tethered to his cellphone, which he even uses to call a buddy who lives one floor above him, and his iPod, which supplies music for walks between classes.

This is college life today, where students are electronically linked to each other, to professors and to their class work 24/7 in an everflowing river of information and communication.

U.S. colleges have been upgrading their computer systems for years, in large part to stay competitive. But the race to lure students with the most robust broadband networks and the hottest gadgets has hit a fever pitch. With many schools offering wireless Internet access anywhere on campus, colleges as a group have become the most Internet-accessible spots in the USA.

Students say they revel in fingertip access to a boundless trove of information on the Web and the ability to e-mail professors about Dante at 2 a.m. and get responses the next morning. “I always feel like I have a means of communications — in class, out of class,” says Varkey, 19, a UNC biology major.

Some suggest that the anywhere-anytime access yields tangible benefits. “To compete globally, we’re going to have to produce a nation of problem-solvers and analytical thinkers, and we’re going to have to do it using 21st-century tools,” says Ken Kay, chairman of consulting group Infotech Strategies.

Some critics say the digitization of campuses has a downside. It can distract students from learning and thinking and make it easier to cheat and plagiarize. And the push to keep pace with technology is swelling college budgets and parents’ tuition bills — without evidence that it makes students more marketable or productive workers.

“It’s going to get bigger and bigger, and I see a proliferating arms race,” says Warren Arbogast, a tech consultant for colleges. “I see a crisis coming with the cost of education going up and up and up.”

With more students shunning dorms’ traditional phones in favor of wireless, some schools have begun ripping out wireline networks. Others are installing cutting-edge Internet-based phone systems. Some are giving students BlackBerrys, tablet PCs, and even iPods.

Nationwide, information-technology accounts for 25% to 28% of college budgets, up from an estimated 2% to 3% in the mid-1980s, says Kenneth Green, director of the Campus Computing Project (CCP), a research group.

UNC-Chapel Hill is in the vanguard of the trend. It was ranked the fifth most-wired campus a couple of years ago by test preparation company The Princeton Review, which publishes an annual college guide. Every UNC-Chapel Hill student is required to have a laptop, whether they buy their own or a $1,200 Dell model from UNC.