Today's generation of college students is among the first to take technological innovations such as e-mail, text-messaging and wireless Internet capability for granted. Entering freshmen in 2007 anticipate that they'll be connected in the dorms, in the classroom and across campus.
As university administrators try to keep pace with the expectations of these students who've grown up using the Internet, they're transforming the college campus into a wireless environment that integrates the latest communication technologies into the classroom and into student life. Some of the changes simply enhance the student lifestyle; others strike at the very root of timeworn notions of how learning should take place in higher-education institutions.
A 2007 University of Virginia survey found that 67 percent of incoming freshman owned an iPod. Among students who came to school with a computer, 97 percent of those computers were laptops, in contrast to 1998, when 87 percent of students' computers were desktops [source: University of Virginia].
The trend toward laptops has led universities to shift much of their technology budget away from computer labs and toward wireless capability. According to a 2006 survey by the Campus Computing Project, more than half of college classrooms across the U.S. are now equipped with WiFi, a 9 percent increase from the previous year [source: The Campus Computing Project].
Intel named Ball State University in Indiana as the "Most Unwired Campus" in 2005. [source: Intel]. Not only does Ball State's wireless network blanket all academic buildings and residence halls, students with laptops can also go online at the football stadium and even on one of the university's shuttle buses. Students waiting to do laundry receive text-message alerts when a washer has become available, and another when their laundry is done. A $156 annual technology fee is incorporated into students' tuition.
In this article, we'll look at how innovations in communication technology are transforming higher education institutions, both at the classroom instruction level and across the campus as a whole. We'll explore specific examples of how technology has been integrated into college campuses and go on to consider the impact communication technology is having on the lives of students and faculty.
Technology in the Classroom
Instructors are integrating computer technology into their presentations. Professors use communication technology to supplement or otherwise alter course instruction in two categories:
- Presentation of course content
- Providing access to information
[source: Campus Technology]
As a supplement to the physical classroom, many universities are using platforms like Blackboard.com, a virtual classroom environment that lets students access course materials, post and store assignments, and receive feedback from their professors and fellow students. At Bradley University, 80 percent of courses use Blackboard to one degree or another, and 2 percent of the university's offerings are taught exclusively on Blackboard [source: Blackboard].
Stanford University is at the forefront of technology-assisted learning. The university's Wallenberg Hall is devoted to technology-assisted learning. Here are some of the innovations:
- In a class on online learning communities, students use wireless laptops to research and record their work, then use Iroom software to send their work instantaneously to a shared Whiteboard screen at the front of the room.
- In Psychology of Media, students do research in an immersive 3-D environment with Media X Works software.
- In an ancient poetry class, students use digital markers to annotate poems displayed on Webster screens (large display screens).
- A Bioinformatics class incorporated videoconferencing in a discussion on protein databases.
[source: Wallenberg Hall]
Access to Information
Many students enter college with the expectation of 24-hour access to information. Weaned on the Web, they don't want to have their research time limited to library hours. With the Web access they have in their dorm rooms, students at the University of Maine are able, via the "Ask a Librarian" service, to request information from the library over e-mail, text message or live chat.
Many instructors also make lectures available as audio or video files on the Web that students can also download to their iPods as podcasts. Stanford University professors has a page on iTunes where students can download lectures.
However, this trend diminishes the need for students to actually show up to class. Students have been known to skip lectures once in a while, but technology now enables them to obtain the information presented in the classroom from remote locations.
An "Introduction to Computing" class at University of California, Berkeley where lecture recordings were available for download had an enrollment of 200, but only about a tenth of the students ever showed up to class [source: Los Angeles Times].
Now let's look at some ways universities are employing communication technology outside of the classroom.
Technology Outside the Classroom
To lure tech-savvy students, many universities are now establishing a presence on social-networking sites such as Facebook and My Space, which can be a prospective student's first exposure to the school. It's been estimated that two out of three people in the United States visit social-networking sites, so it makes sense that universities would want to be a part of these online communities.
Marshall University, which boasts wireless access over 90 percent of its campus, has taken technology one step further in the recruitment process, providing visiting students with wireless Web tablets that display a tour of the campus. The tablets also are enabled for e-mail access and Web surfing [source: Charleston State Journal].
The shootings at Virginia Tech in early 2007, in which 33 students lost their lives, led university administrators across the country to look at using technology to improve their emergency-response systems. With nearly every student now carrying a cell phone, many universities have begun text messaging students to alert them to emergencies from a possible shooter on campus to inclement weather [source: Christian Science Monitor].
When a University of Colorado-Boulder student was stabbed on campus in August 2007, the university immediately sent a text message to the 1,300 students and faculty who signed up for the CUConnect emergency-notification system [source: University of Colorado at Boulder].
As this approach is in its infancy, it's not clear yet whether text messaging is a more effective method of emergency warning than traditional means, such as air-raid sirens. Additionally, students must subscribe to many text-messaging services, so the system likely will not reach all affected students. Universities would also be susceptible to liability claims if the system didn't work as it was supposed to.
As information shifts away from the actual classroom to the virtual online world, debates are rising among faculty and administrators with differing opinions on whether pedagogy or technology should come first. Universities are working to find a middle ground where they are providing tech-savvy students with the information access they expect, while not creating too strong a disincentive to attend class. In a sense, it's a matter of faculty and administrators catching up and becoming as tech-savvy as the students. Whatever develops in the years to come, it's safe to say that a revolution is underway in higher education, and our campuses will never be quite the same.
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