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November 11, 1996

Computers Help Unite Campuses but Also Drive Some Students Apart


HANOVER, N.H. -- Through a plug in his dorm room, Arthur Desrosiers, a Dartmouth College sophomore, pursues all the preoccupations of undergraduate life without leaving his chair: he questions professors, fishes for dates, browses the library catalogue, orders in pizza and engages in 2 a.m. bull sessions on the meaning of it all.

Using the campus e-mail system, known as Blitzmail, he sometimes trades a series of back-and-forth messages with his two roommates -- even though they are sitting just a few feet away.

"I guess you could say you're pretty addicted if you're having a long Blitzmail conversation with your roommate, and you happen to be sitting right there in the same room," Desrosiers said.

Anyone who has not visited a college campus lately may be in for a jolt. Across the country, computer networks are cinching even tighter the already inward-looking communities typical of campuses, transforming the social and academic life of today's students.

Dormitory lounges are being carved up for clusters of computers, student unions are declining as gathering places, and computer-wired dorm rooms are becoming, in some cases, high-tech caves. Some scholars say "plug per pillow" campuses are undermining the ideal of a residential college as a melting pot where people from different social and regional backgrounds meet.

Professor James Banning, an environmental psychologist at Colorado State University who surveyed some 100 university housing officers last year, remarked: "Universities are saying: 'Oh, my God, they're in their rooms. How can we ever build a sense of community in this building if they don't come out?"

Dartmouth, one of the most academically competitive colleges in the country, has long had a reputation for encouraging computer use by students. It now has the new distinction of being one of the most e-mail-intensive, delivering about 250,000 electronic messages a day to 5,000 students and 3,000 faculty and staff members, or more than 30 messages apiece.

At public terminals all over the campus (to keep students from having to return to their rooms), five to 10 students line up as if at a cash machine, observing rules of Blitzmail etiquette like not reading over the shoulder of the person at the screen. In the Thayer dining hall recently, Stephanie Waddell, a senior studio art major, read a Blitz request from a male friend that began, "Need a date."

James Hunnicutt, a junior English major who was next in line, received five messages from his mother in Charlotte, N.C., asking about his law-school plans, a note from a high-school girlfriend at a college in Oregon and a message from his roommate vetoing the idea of a party in their room.

Most students say Blitzmail is convenient and indispensable on campus and gives them an easy way to stay in touch with family and high school friends. But Mark Shahinian, a junior history major, complained that it encouraged on-line electronic bantering while inhibiting meaningful communication.

He compared Blitzmail relationships to the brief encounters typical of those at fraternity parties, which play a big role on the isolated New Hampshire campus. "Blitzmail has a bit of that casualness -- knowing a lot of people but not all that well," he said.

Computer technology has come to higher education in many forms, including World Wide Web sites where art professors create digitized galleries; custom software for teaching human anatomy, and "smart" classrooms with a computer for each student to teach engineering or writing. Many college guides now give campuses a "wired rating."

After building momentum for a decade, the wired campus has reached critical mass and will soon be unavoidable, said Kenneth C. Green, the director of the Campus Computing Survey, which collects data annually from 650 colleges and universities.

More than half of all residential campuses in the United States have network connections in dormitory rooms, according to the latest survey, released this year. The number of classes using e-mail to supplement academic discussions and professors' office hours grew to 20 percent in 1995 from 8 percent in 1994. The number that use specialized educational software rose to 18 percent from 12 percent.

Green, a visiting scholar at the Claremont Graduate School, said that even though there were "a lot of questions about the pedagogical value" of computer technology, academia had largely accepted it, and that there were apparently no efforts to counter any antisocial side effects of systems like Blitzmail.

Paradoxically, it is electronic mail, one of the most mundane and least-examined of computer applications, that is probably having the most profound effect on campuses.

"E-mail is like the god of every college student," said Abigail Butler, who graduated from Vassar College this year with a major in French and political science. "People probably spend easily three hours a day sending and receiving messages. It's the No. 1 way that romances go on at colleges. It's like the dating game on line."

Jeremy Edberg, an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley who said he spent 10 hours a day on line, said that almost all his conversations with professors were now by e-mail. Just about the only time he visits them in person, he said, is to try to persuade them to change a grade. "Students don't meet at rathskellers and hamburger joints and in dorm rooms anymore," said Clifford Stoll, a former researcher at Harvard University and the author of "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway" (Doubleday, 1995.) "Instead, they poke their heads into computers for hours on end.

"We're turning colleges into a cubicle-directed electronic experience and denying the importance of learning to work closely with other students and professors, and developing social adeptness," Stoll said.

Banning, the scholar studying dorm life, said that since going to Colorado State in 1978, he had noticed that students were spending more time in their rooms. A once-crowded restaurant across from the residence halls closed three years ago and has not reopened.

"It's kind of odd to think of a restaurant space that's been vacant for three years across from where about 3,000 students live," he said.

But the image of students sitting trancelike in front of computers, cut off from the grit of life, is exaggerated, other experts say. "A certain sector of undergraduates, especially adolescent males," has always focused obsessively on narrow interests, said Steven W. Gilbert, the director of technology projects for the American Association for Higher Education. "Sometimes it's fixing hot rods. Sometimes it's the Internet. I would bet you wouldn't find any more doing it now than 20 years ago."

To judge by a recent Friday night at Dartmouth, Blitzmail has hardly killed off rathskellers and other gathering places. There were good crowds at Queer Club, a dance presented by the campus gay and lesbian alliance, and off campus at the Dirt Cowboy Cafe, where students sipped carrot juice and cappuccinos.

At the same time, many dorm room windows emitted a bluish glow, the light of a computer screen with a student's head buried in it. A few students said Blitzmail contributed to a feeling of alienation.

Enthusiasts of e-mail praise it as a virtual office system in which students can question professors about courses at any time, and shy students and those for whom English is a second language have a better chance to be heard.

David G. Brown, the provost of Wake Forest University and a professor of economics, said that e-mail had not isolated him from students.

"It's increased the face-to-face communication I've had with my students at least fivefold," he said. "Because we're in communication every day, we feel that we're a group ready to help one another, not only over the network but in person."

This fall, Wake Forest, a private university with 3,700 undergraduates in Winston-Salem, N.C., distributed IBM lap-top computers to all its approximately 940 freshmen, paid for with part of a $3,000 tuition increase.

It is part of a sweeping Wake Forest plan to use network technology to change the ways students work and communicate.

Brown's freshman economics seminar is already a paperless course that students attend with their lap-top computers, which are all linked together. The professor might ask them to write a one-sentence summary of an economic topic like opportunity cost, what is given up when a choice is made, then electronically forward it to the others.

For homework, he might have students search the Internet for a news article demonstrating opportunity cost, write a short essay about it and then send it to him by e-mail with a picture obtained from the Louvre museum Web site demonstrating opportunity cost. Back in class, essays and pictures spark discussion.

Brown and others who are enthusiastic about wired campuses insist that the cart of technology is being pulled by the horse of learning, rather than the reverse.

But there is concern that the unequal distribution of technology between rich and poor campuses will create a system of computer haves and have-nots. Public universities and two-year community colleges are typically less wired because of the high costs. Bringing fiber-optic cable into dormitories and faculty offices for a network can cost millions of dollars. Fitting a classroom with 20 computers and a projection system costs as much as $100,000.

Paradoxically, the highest-tech learning of all -- the delivery of lectures over computer screens or cable television, called distance learning -- is the subject of the most serious experimentation at cash-strapped public universities. The American Federation of Teachers, in a report this year critical of the sterility of distance learning, noted, "All our experience as educators tells us that teaching and learning in the shared human spaces of a campus are essential to the undergraduate experience."

But the nature of those shared spaces seems to be changing.

At Vassar, students chat electronically between dorm rooms using screen names.

"One woman, an English major, met a physics major who quoted Shakespeare to her, and it was love at first Broadcast," said Ms. Butler, the recent Vassar graduate, who was known on the network as Snow White. "I've also known people who sat home Friday and Saturday nights, Broadcasting back and forth to people they know only by nicknames, while the rest of the world was going by.

"After a while, it starts to be really unfulfilling," she said. "Every Broadcast conversation with someone new is the same for the first 20 messages, finding out who they are. It's easier to just meet someone. You learn how much of a difference it makes to see someone in person and actually talk to them."

Copyright 1996 The New York Times