The role of computers in education is quickly expanding. Computers have permeated the administrative offices, laboratories and classrooms of grade schools, high schools and universities, preparing students for entry into job markets that reward technical knowledge and have little use for the uninitiated.
But the degree to which colleges and universities have embraced technology varies greatly. For the past three years, Yahoo! Internet Life, a magazine covering the Web, has ranked American colleges and universities on how well and how much they have incorporated computers and the Internet into the collegiate experience. The ranking examines, among other things, each institution's technology purchases, computer ownership requirements for students, the extent to which classrooms and dormitory rooms are wired for Web access and the ability to apply for admission and register for classes online.
Ohio fared well in the 1999 rankings, with the University of Dayton ranked as the 21st most wired university, the University of Cincinnati 32nd and Ohio State University 38th. UD not only achieved the highest rank of any Ohio university, but was also the highest ranked Catholic university in the country.
UD's debut on this competitive ranking is mainly due to the university's technology initiative, known as the Learning Village. Born of long-term planning meetings in the mid-1990s, the Learning Village is UD's attempt to reconcile colleges and universities — in which people interact face-to-face, living, studying and working in close proximity to each other — with an increasingly wired world in which electronic communication often substitutes for human contact.
Instead of contributing to the physical isolation of the wired world by offering online degrees, a strategy that many institutions have adopted, UD decided technology should enhance, not replace, the direct-learning experience of classrooms and laboratories. The term "Learning Village" signifies UD's philosophy that colleges should offer a comprehensive educational experience, and the whole campus should be a classroom.
"Once we identified our goal of creating a truly immersive learning environment for our students, it quickly became clear that we had to build a very powerful data network and communication system," says Tom Skill, assistant provost for academic technology and director of the Learning Village. "When students leave the classroom, they should still be able to access all the resources they need to continue learning."
To achieve this goal, UD connected all dorms and university-owned single-family houses, approximately 390 houses in a 25-block area, with fiber-optic and coaxial cables. The network of cables reaches 5,600 of the 6,500 undergraduate students at the school and nearly all freshmen. Students who cannot access fiber-optic connections because they live in housing not owned by the university receive a free dial-in connection.
Through the coaxial cables flow a combination of cable-television shows and educational programming, which is either purchased from vendors or produced by the university. Through the fiber-optic cables flow text, data, pictures, and sound — all of which flow very quickly. The most popular level of Cincinnati Bell's Zoomtown ADSL service provides maximum download speeds of 768 kilobytes per second, while UD students connect to the Internet at 10 megabits per second, 13 times faster than Zoomtown.
After constructing this high-speed pipeline, the university negotiated contracts with a computer manufacturer and with several software vendors. Tangent Computer of Burlingame, California, a PC manufacturer who markets only to educational and governmental institutions, provides computers for both students and faculty. The university ensures the quality of the computers by selecting the components that comprise them.
"Tangent is not a brand name, because it does not generally sell to the public," Skill says. "We specified high-quality components in our contract, because we wanted the students to be comfortable with the machines."
Computer choices consist of a 700 MHz Pentium III tower, an 800 MHz Pentium III tower with upgraded components or a 600 MHz Pentium III notebook computer. The tower PC's brand-name components include Intel network cards, Labtec speakers, Sony floppy drives, and Iomega Zip drives. When incoming freshmen show up this month, their computers will be set up in their rooms, configured to run on the university's network, and loaded with Lotus Notes, Lotus Learning Space (electronic learning software) and Microsoft Office 2000 — all on the Microsoft Windows 2000 operating system.
Each PC comes with a four-year warranty on parts and labor; and two Tangent technicians are on-site at UD to provide technical support. Supplementing these professionals are student computer consultants, known as Techno Fellows, and a technology-oriented television show that runs on several of UD's cable channels. The show features students demonstrating start-up procedures and answering viewers' questions.
The cost of students' computers — $1,277 for the basic tower, $1,839 for the upgraded tower and $2,297 for the notebook — is factored into each student's financial-aid determination. Last year's freshman class was the first required to purchase a computer. Only 11 percent of the schools participating in the survey have a computer-purchase requirement similar to UD's.
According to Skill, the university mandates computer purchases so that professors can utilize electronic learning tools such as e-mail, Web pages containing course materials and discussion groups. Since only 70 percent of UD students owned computers prior to the requirement, professors could not use these tools without omitting a significant portion of the class. Uniform PCs and software also make it possible for the university to develop technology-based teaching programs that all professors can use and from which all students can benefit. Additionally, because student and faculty computers have uniform configurations and are on the university's network, the system's administrator can quickly, remotely and simultaneously update software installed on PCs throughout campus.
The hub of the Learning Village is in the Ryan C. Harris Learning-Teaching Center, a new building dedicated to exploring and developing educational techniques. In addition to housing Learning Village offices, the center is also home to the Collaboratory, Academic Technology Services and Williams Web Development Lab.
The Collaboratory is a meeting place equipped to utilize groupware, software that facilitates group decision-making. Both Academic Technology Services and the Williams Web Development Lab are support services designed to encourage the use of the university's technology. The staff and students who comprise the Williams Web Development Lab encourage instructors and students to create and maintain web pages and support those efforts with technical assistance. Academic Technology Services works to increase awareness of the value of computing and instructional technology and helps implement that technology.
The construction and support of UD's technological infrastructure has not been cheap. UD's technology-support budget has ballooned 67 percent, from about $3 million per year to $5 million, to finance the infrastructure and support of the Learning Village. Endowments, tuition revenue and cuts in other parts of the school's budget have financed all on-campus technology spending. Skill expects this spending to slow after next year, when the rest of the infrastructure will be in place.
Increases in rent for the university's single-family houses will finance the wiring of those units. Sensitive to backlashes against sudden jumps in any student costs, the university is raising rent slowly, between 4 and 4.5 percent last year.
Streaming media and wireless connections appear to be next on UD's technological horizon. Skill has received numerous requests from faculty members interested in streaming video and audio as educational tools, particularly as a replacement for foreign-language labs. Language students must now go to a special facility to record sessions that professors later review. Streaming technology would allow students to transmit these sessions from their computer directly to a professor's computer.
The technology could also transport students, in a virtual manner, to the country whose language they are studying. Video images would place them in typical travel scenarios — such as purchasing a bus ticket or ordering a meal — in which they would respond to virtual people speaking to them.
The construction of the university's wireless connections, intended to provide coverage in those areas of campus not covered by the fiber-optic network, is nearly complete. Yahoo! Internet Life's ranking criteria includes the degree to which a university is pursuing wireless Web connections. The magazine's editors view a dedication to this technology as an indication that the school is dedicated not only to the tried-and-true, but also to the cutting-edge.
In constructing this technological infrastructure, UD joins hundreds of colleges and universities around the country that recognize the importance of technology. But according to Skill, UD is different from most in that its technological push was influenced not by a desire to compete with other wired universities, but by the university's educational philosophy — the Learning Village.
"When the people at Yahoo! interviewed me for the ranking, they told me, 'Wow, you really had a plan for all of this technology," Skill said. "They were impressed with that."
Next month's Digital Wire will examine the impact this plan has had on UD's community.