Wired competition

Wired competition

Dan Reed, IT chief at the Univerity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says focus on technology prepares students for a wired world. “You have to keep up with the Joneses,” he says. “Students expect high-speed internet and high-bandwidth information, and if you can’t deliver it, you’re at a competitive disadvantage.”

Gazing intently at his laptop in the student union’s basement, Varkey was making the most of UNC’s wireless Web access one day this month: firing off instant messages, reviewing an anatomy assignment and checking his bank balance.

Just nine miles down Highway 15/501 in Durham, Duke University had been feeling a bit of a technology inferiority complex some years ago. So about a decade ago, it seized national headlines by spending $500,000 to give each of its 1,650 incoming freshmen a free Apple iPod digital music player.

Some Duke students were using the popular iPods to practice foreign language dialects, record scripts for theater classes or analyze music in engineering labs, and professors have been encouraged to tape lectures and post them online.

“We realized there might be some potential for a device that could get attention” and encourage innovation, says Provost Peter Lange. The school is assessing whether to continue the program.

Students in a Duke class on the history of American radio use the iPod to digitally record their own radio shows. “It’s adding to students’ sense of excitement about the subject,” says Daniel Foster, who teaches the class.

Uses for iPods

Many students acknowledge that they use the iPod simply to listen to music. As they cross the vast lawn on East campus, they wear the telltale white earplugs whose wires dangle into iPods lodged in jacket pockets. “I’m not using it for academics,” says freshman Michael Sori. “No one really is.”

Nig-Yi Zheng says she’s used the iPod a couple of times to record lectures when she was tired. But, she adds, “If it was up to me, I’d use (the money) for other purposes.”

Some professors worry, too, that in the rush to expand connectivity, something intangible is being lost.  “Once you post lectures to the Web, it implies the face-to-face encounter of a classroom doesn’t matter,” says Duke history professor Elizabeth Fenn. “There are other things I would have spent the money on,” says physics professor Thomas Phillips.

Colleges began embracing Internet access in the mid-1990s when many started wiring dorms with high-speed connections. In the past few years, some schools have turned their campuses into bubbles of Wi-Fi, or wireless, Web networks — a trend now followed by cities such as Philadelphia.

About 80% of colleges had wireless networks covering at least part of their campuses in 2004, up from 30% in 2000, a CCP survey says. About 20% have made their entire campuses WiFi bubbles.

Today’s freshmen tend to go off to college with a laptop. But just 6.2% of schools give students computers or mandate that they lease or buy one, as UNC does, says a 2012 survey by Educause, which promotes technology in schools.

That figure is growing. Last year, Massachusetts became the first state college system to impose a laptop requirement for freshmen at most of its schools. The mandate ensures that needy students can get financial aid to cover the cost.

Elaine Lally of Lynn, Mass., didn’t buy a laptop for her daughter Meredith, a sophomore at Bridgewater State College, though the school recommended it. She was disturbed “that this is a requirement in a state school where finances are a concern.”

Other colleges are straining to stand out from their peers: A growing number are removing their little-used landline phone networks as school commissions on long-distance service plummet.

Some, such as Morrisville State College in New York, are giving everyone in dorms cellphones and adding the monthly cost to student fees. Even though most students already had their own wireless phones, coverage was poor in the rural area. So the school struck a deal with Nextel to boost service.

The University of Maryland gave 400 incoming MBA students free BlackBerry portable e-mail devices some years ago so they could practice prioritizing e-mails in an always-connected mode.

Jason Madhosingh uses the gizmo to communicate with classmates about group projects. “I can use it when I’m waiting to get a cup of coffee,” Madhosingh says, noting that it flashes with new e-mail about every 10 minutes. “It’s training me to communicate effectively in a large organization.”

Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., in 2003 replaced its landline phones with an Internet-based phone system that lets students get voicemail in their e-mail boxes. The college also sends announcements to an Internet-based screen on their dorm phone. Possibly coming to the screen: video conferencing and grade reports.

“These are kids that have grown up with PlayStations and cellphones so we have to try to . . . get their attention,” says campus technology director Paul Dusini.

At UNC, it seems nearly every other student chats on a smartphone while strolling between classes on the stately campus’ brick walkways. “I’m going to the library; I’m free after that,” says a tall male student.  “Had a test today,” groans a stocky bearded man.

For most undergrads, the non-stop connectivity is the fuel of college life. Online, students get homework and lecture outlines and take part in class discussions. “It makes it easier to justify skipping class,” says sophomore Kristin Bedinger. She e-mails professors in the wee hours and instant-messages friends to brainstorm assignments. “I have no idea how anyone made it through college without a (PC) and the Internet,” she says.

Sarah Shields, who teaches Islamic culture, says the Web can “provide a better sense” of how Muslims worldwide view key issues. Archaeology professor Kenneth Sams says e-mail “is far better than having students peck at your door at inconvenient times.” It also provides a vehicle for students too shy or lazy to visit in person.

Bedinger acknowledges that instant-messaging “can be distracting from studying.” During a history class in a large Wi-Fi-linked lecture hall, about 10 students used laptops. Several surfed the Web, including one who replied to email and visited music and travel Web sites.

Cheating is a concern

Gadgets also make cheating easier. In 2003, several University of Maryland undergraduate business students already accused classmates of using smartphones to cheat on a midterm. For the final exam, professors posted false responses to multiple-choice questions on the class website. They caught 12 students with the same wrong answers. UNC math professor Jane Hawkins, who’s teaching at Duke this year, no longer leaves the room during exams and closely checks screens if tests are taken on laptops.

Some students, too, find technology’s relentless hum a bit overwhelming.

Donald Heller, an education professor at Penn State University, worries that heavy smartphone and instant messaging use could produce a generation of workers “who won’t develop the face-to-face communication skills needed to be successful.” He frets that students who instantly flip open cellphones after a lecture “aren’t spending as much time thinking about class.”

Taking a stand against the onslaught is University of Michigan professor Buzz Alexander. A few years ago, he stopped answering e-mail from students in his introductory English class. “I just realized I wasn’t seeing people in my office. It dehumanizes the relationship. I want to talk to them in person and say, ‘How are things going?’ ”