Going Somewhere Fast


November 29, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

First the computer revolutionized higher education.

Now the Internet, the international web of computer networks, is keeping the revolution alive. No one knows for sure where the "information superhighway" is going. No one knows its potential. It's a work in progress.

At the University of Maryland Baltimore County, professors aren't yet teaching classes over the Internet, but they're doing everything but. Course notes, outlines, assignments go out on internal computer networks. Students discuss the content of courses, they conduct research, they complain about grades by computer. They keep in touch with high school buddies at other colleges. They can even e-mail home for money.

In Gust W. Mitchell's introductory course on social welfare and social work, students communicate with other students and with libraries around the world through one of the Internet networks called the World Wide Web.

No longer do students and professors have to go to the library and find the "abstract" of an article on academic research. Through the World Wide Web, they can read the original article, "talk" to the professors in Korea or France who did the work, then file the information for further use.

Reading "Hamlet" or another classic on the computer screen, English students can leave the play for a few minutes of "hypertext" about Elizabethan England, then return to the original play, making a print-out of it later if they like.

Academic journals, those highly expensive publications that FTC have strained the budgets of many a university library, are now widely available on the network. Academics of all stripes gab on the Internet at all hours and in all time zones, discussing developments in their fields, posting job openings, criticizing papers, gossiping and flirting.

Larrabee Strow, associate professor of physics at UMBC, says he gets 40 to 50 messages a week via e-mail "from all over the world." (The University of Maryland College Park reports 550,000 e-mail messages are sent weekly over miles of fiber optic cable.)

"You can't do business without it [the Internet]," Dr. Strow says. "It's a lot easier than traveling." Indeed, the Internet makes it possible for professors at a dozen universities to collaborate on a research project much more easily than they could have in the days of telephones and "snail mail," the Internet words for the U.S. Postal Service.

Moreover, the Internet has gotten much more "user-friendly," say its regular users.

"The Internet started off with a bunch of nerds," said UMBC's Dr. Mitchell, chairman of the Department of Social Work. "Now it's easy to use. You just point and click. I've seen several people who said they were turned off by computers get turned on after only a few minutes. It's not the formidable thing they thought it was. In fact, it's the best tool we've had in higher education in many a year."

Jack Suess, associate director of the academic computing office at UMBC, takes a visitor on a sight and sound browse of the network via a program called "Mosaic." Stops range from incomprehensible mathematical formulas to the mewing of Socks the cat on a link to the Internet called "White House," established by nobody's dummy, President Clinton.

Mr. Suess said about a third of UMBC's 10,000 students have personal computers with modems allowing access to the Internet, but he expects 80 percent to 90 percent to have that capability in three years. There are 400 terminals on campus, and they're in such heavy demand that some have to use them in the wee hours.

These statistics raise some questions. Indeed, as higher education moves down the information superhighway, new questions are raised at each milepost.

Questions of equality: State universities like UMBC can't afford to equip every student with a $2,500 home computer setup. Maybe Dartmouth can. What are the obligations of colleges and universities to give students access to the Internet? Do physics students get precedence over English lit students?

Questions of control over the information: Three hundred students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh protested earlier this month when university officials cut off access to Internet networks showing sexually explicit pictures. Was it a violation of free speech? Did a woman who claimed she was sexually harassed on the Internet have the right to the name and address of the alleged violator?

Questions of boundaries: The Internet, with all of its possibilities, erases the boundaries of classrooms, the boundaries of nations and time zones and the limitations of print. All of this has huge implications for the way professors work and the way instruction is received.

Will the college "class," as we know it, disappear, with thousands of students sitting at computer terminals and universities reduced to mere information suppliers? Will the Internet dehumanize higher education?

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