If there's one thing today's college students know more about than their parents did, it's how to get really wired. We're not talking about caffeine or speed - that's another story. Getting wired is about collegians being tuned in to the Net when they first arrive on campus.
Every major American college is already linked to the Web in one way or another, with many of them offering free online access, email and research tools to every student. But at least one school is taking that digital drive for knowledge farther than most.
Since 1991, Dartmouth College students have had to pack up their Mac or IBM and cart it off to campus along with their belongings. "We're required to have a computer," says Jen Taylor, a double major at Dartmouth. "The university has mostly Macs. Now they offer both a PC and a Mac package," she adds.
"I did purchase one through the college," recalls Taylor, who is now a junior. Her classmate did the same. "I got it through the school program," says sophomore Julia Levy. "They send you a mailing and it lists a couple of computer programs. It had the iMac and the G3, and now it has a laptop and an IBM compatible PC. During the orientation week when only the freshmen are here, they give you your computer," says Levy.
Buying direct through Dartmouth offers students two advantages. The computers come tech-tuned just right for life on campus, with hardware and software requirements already set to school specs. Plus, there's a bit of a break on the price - iMacs are at least $50 off retail for students buying through the campus computer store. A similar discount applies to other computer systems, too.
The world may be running on Windows today, but nearly ten years ago when Dartmouth's PC required program kicked in, Apple was the best choice for the job. "The Mac systems were much better tuned in to the campus," says Taylor. "This year was the first year they stopped giving preference for the Macintosh," shares Levy. "I'd say that most people still have them, a lot of people have iMacs, a lot of people have the G3."
In fact, the Mac bias at Dartmouth really started 16 years ago. "Apple was selected in 1984, right when the 128 Mac came out. There's a very strong precedent for a system that was easy to use," explains Lawrence Levine, the school's director of computing. "The choice for that turned out to be a Macintosh because the Macintosh had its point and click icon graphic user interface."
For a short time Dartmouth didn't just favor Macintosh computers over IBM compatibles - it required them. That's ironic because there was talk at an Ivy League rival about just the opposite. The head of Yale's information technology services was worried that Apple computers would not be able to meet the needs of students, because the company was not yet strong financially. That was a couple of years ago, and those worries have since gone away. The point is -- it's important for students to see which system their school is plugging before they plug in.
Unlike Dartmouth, Yale doesn't make students pack a PC for school. "You don't have to make it a requirement, they all [bring a computer] anyway," says Tom Conway, from Yale's public information office. That's true on most college campuses, where students are finding a lot more uses for computers than cybersurfing and playing pong.
"No, we don't require students to bring a PC," says Juhee Kim, a sophomore studying math and biology at Boston University. But she has one. "I use it all the time, actually, especially with the Internet."
Most students shouldn't worry if they aren't wired when they arrive at college. "There are various computers on campus, in the library and computer labs," says Kim. "For computer science courses we have computer labs for lectures, and you actually have a computer in front of you."
Even if students don't own a PC, they'll have to learn their way around the information superhighway sooner or later. "I have used the computer and had the students using the computer for years and years," says retired Professor Robert Huke, from Dartmouth. He first plugged his classes in, in the late '70s. "I would judge that at least half of the courses on campus require at least some kind of computer work. I'm in the geography department, and here two-thirds of all the courses require some kind of assignments to be done on the computer. The same thing is true in environmental studies, Latin -- almost any department."
The electronic evolution has clearly driven the way people teach and learn at America's institutions of higher learning. "It's affected the way people work, the way they communicate," admits Levine. And his colleagues agree.
"That's certainly helped. The fact that we do have a policy that all incoming freshman have to have a computer," says Michael Beahan. As Dartmouth's director of instructional services, his office sets up computer presentations for classes using software like PowerPoint, which blends images and sound on a PC.
Beahan says although it's students who are required to have and use a computer on campus, professors are finding themselves facing some requirements of their own. "What I hear from faculty is the first time they saw a PowerPoint presentation is when a student used it to present a project," recalls Beahan. "I think students are definitely pushing faculty to use this technology, probably more so than they might have been."