March 26, 2000
A Revolution in Education Clicks Into Place
Join a Discussion on Technology in the Classroom
By JODI WILGOREN
INSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- During
his economics seminar the other day,
Sean Leary, a freshman at Wake
Forest University, scanned stock
prices, browsed basketball updates
from ESPN, checked his e-mail, and
perused pictures of "beautiful girls"
on www.acewallpapers.com in
search of a new backdrop for his
laptop computer screen.
It seems Mr. Leary, who had already taken one economics course in
the fall, was bored by the discussion
of marginal benefit and cost. But no
matter. This is a laptop classroom,
where each student sits behind an
open machine, sometimes posting
answers to the professor's queries on
a virtual chalkboard, sometimes,
well, doing something else.
Gerry Broome/Associated Press
David G. Brown, dean of the International Center for Computer
Enhanced Education at Wake Forest University, teaches with laptops.
Students type answers into a chat room instead of raising their hands.
"I haven't skipped this class
once," noted Mr. Leary, 18. "Even if
there's something in class that's boring, there's other stuff you can do."
Wake Forest is one of more than
100 colleges and universities across
the country where a computer is now
required to matriculate. (Some, like
Wake Forest, have raised tuition and
mail the laptops shortly after acceptance letters.) Not only has this created new forms of in-class distraction
and revolutionized campus communication -- e-mail is used to plan
Saturday night outings as well as to
write responses to required readings
-- but it has begun to transform
For example, Gordon McCray, a
Wake Forest business professor,
turned all of his lectures into a
streaming video CD-ROM, essentially doubling his class time by forcing
students to watch the lectures (or
read a transcript) on their own. He
thereby freed class time for group
exercises. Others have students do
Web research in class to supplement
discussion or use software for homework and quizzes that help tailor
syllabuses to individuals. Professors
say this way they are now serving a
broader spectrum of learning styles.
The very hours of learning have
also been extended beyond the classroom through online discussion
groups -- often including experts in
the field or alumni. Where only a
handful of students typically take
advantage of once-a-week office
hours, instructors are now in constant contact with their students by
e-mail, even in the wee hours.
"It's not just added on to the old
curriculum -- it's a whole new curriculum," said Bill Moss, a professor
of mathematics at Clemson University in South Carolina, where he
started a laptop project for 250 engineering majors this year. "You've
got old guys like me who've been
teaching for 30 years who've got to
throw out stacks of yellow notes and
start a whole new pedagogy."
Arguing that computer literacy is
now an essential part of a liberal arts
education, small colleges and professional schools now scratch for spots
on Yahoo's annual ranking of America's "most wired" colleges.
The first colleges to require computers were the military academies,
which started putting a desktop in
every cadet's room in 1983. But the
current wave began a decade later at
the University of Minnesota-Crookston, an outpost of 2,464 students on
the western edge of the state, and has
erupted over the last five years, from
Seton Hall in New Jersey to Sonoma
State in California, from the University of Virginia's business school to
the tiny Shepard Broad Law Center
at Nova Southeastern University in
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Now the trend is spreading to
large public institutions: the University of Florida in Gainesville, the
University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill and Michigan State University have all recently approved
Student life and
teaching itself are
Experts estimate that 80 percent
of college students now bring a computer with them to campus. Making
it a requirement means the cost can
be factored in for financial aid; it
also allows the university to impose
uniformity, which makes technical
support much simpler. In most
cases, students pay about $3,000 for a
laptop fully loaded with software
specially designed for the institution,
then trade it for a new model their
junior or senior year.
Universities are also spending millions of dollars to upgrade classrooms so there are plugs and Internet connections at every seat --
though some are experimenting with
wireless technology -- as well as
laser disc players and video screens
up front. There are added costs for
expanded computer help desks,
work-study jobs for students who
provide emergency technical assistance in dormitories, and training for
reluctant, old-fashioned faculty.
"The students believe we've given
them an edge as they go out into the
marketplace," said Joseph D. Harbaugh, dean of the Nova law school,
where students use legal case-management software to file their assignments and mock-bill their time.
"This has set us apart as we go out
into the market for students and for
At Clemson, English classes keep
their compositions in electronic portfolios posted on the Web. At Western
Carolina University in the foothills of
the Smoky Mountains, literature professors are able to use primary
source documents in their lectures,
displaying Web images of the handwritten notes of a minor British poet
from an archive hundreds of miles
away at Princeton University. In
Jonathan Zittrain's class on Internet
and Society at Harvard Law School,
students respond each week to a
question posted on the Web, and the
answers are automatically routed to
another student -- or, perhaps, the
author of the pertinent article -- for
At Oberlin College in Ohio, a class
on the industrial revolution is using
university-owned laptops kept locked
in a newly wired classroom. One day
they browse an online archive of
correspondence between spouses in
19th-century Pennsylvania, another
they analyze data from the 1870 census in Cleveland.
"We're experiencing something of
the same sense of upheaval," said
Gary Kornblith, the professor, aware
of the irony of his technique and his
topic. "I see a lot of parallels, and I
hope my students will see parallels."
Here at Wake Forest, where the
class of 2000 was the first to receive
laptops, only a handful of professors
regularly use computers in the classroom, but nearly all of them incorporate technology into their teaching.
Students in Patricia Dixon's Musical Protest in the Americas class
consulted Pete Seeger himself in an
online chat (and later corrected the
professor by supplying Mr. Seeger's
eyewitness view of events).
Rick Matthews, chairman of the
physics department, said a circuit-maker program has elevated his
electronics class. Before, students
would draw a circuit, he would find a
couple of mistakes -- probably miss
one or two -- and give the paper, say,
an 82. Now, students can test the
circuit to see whether current would
actually flow; everyone gets a zero
or 100, because no one turns the
assignment in until it works.
"The homework before wasn't
teaching them anything -- it was
merely documenting what they knew
and didn't know," he said. "Now,
they're putting four times as much
time in as they did before, they're
enjoying the homework more, learning 50 percent more electronics."
David G. Brown spearheaded
Wake Forest's computer initiative
while he was provost, and now is
dean of the university's International
Center for Computer Enhanced
Learning. Dr. Brown, an economist,
is a surprising spokesman for e-education: his computer experience five
years ago was limited to typing on a
word processor. Now, his syllabus is
an interactive document featuring
color photographs of his students, his
"textbook" is electronic, and he
grades essays online.
"The computer is like the library,"
said Dr. Brown, who uses laptops
every day in class, having students
type answers into a chat room rather
than raise hands, or prepare an instant presentation doing Web research. "It's an intellectual resource. If you don't have it, you've
got to dumb down your course,
you've got to dumb down your research."
There are, of course, potential pitfalls.
There is the astronomy professor
at Wake Forest who posted his lectures on the Web -- so most people
stopped showing up for class. And
there are the students at Columbia
University School of Business who
spend their time in class trading
stocks -- occasionally interrupting
the lecture with whoops of joy or
sighs of pain over their trades. And
there is the incessant clicking on
campuses everywhere as students
take notes on their machines or use
them to write exams.
"It can't make up for a good teacher," said Heath Baumgarten, 20, a
Wake Forest junior from Freeport,
Me. "It has changed the social body.
It's harder to meet people. A lot of
people are inside a lot now."
As the first laptop class graduates
from Wake Forest this spring, Mr.
Baumgarten said he, for one, plans to
leave his computer behind.