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Cyber Schools

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 1999
Some people learn the hard way: It no longer makes sense to go to college without a PC

In the months before she arrived at Georgetown University, Michelle McDowell wrestled with questions that have bedeviled new college students for generations: How much clothing should she take? What kind of budget would she require? How often could she return home?

But the question that gave her the most jitters was almost as new as a freshman is on campus: Was it really necessary to take a personal computer to college?

Computers cost a lot of money, and McDowell had no idea what kind to buy. Georgetown, like nearly every school in the nation, offered easy access to computer labs. Besides, she had done well in high school with pen and paper. So, in the end, she decided to forgo the computer.

It turned out to be the first big mistake of her college life – and classes hadn't even started.

"I didn't have a clue," she recalled ruefully. "It would have made things a lot easier."

Technology has become a way of life for students these days. It doesn't matter if they are history majors like McDowell, or would-be artists, marketers or engineers, student work and life are increasingly online. They plug into university networks at all hours to enroll for classes or share notes. They research, write and fact-check papers on computers. They review lectures from their dorm room or home. In the morning, they might retrieve a speech from a professor's electronic archives, and in the evening peruse e-mail in the search for the hottest party. They are forever downloading free music from the Web.

After enduring a year without a computer, McDowell, now a 20-year-old rising junior, finally bought a laptop. She uses it to book travel arrangements to her home in Trinidad and write e-mail to her friends. Perhaps best of all, she works on papers and other assignments in the comfort of her own room instead of having to go to a university lab.

"When you're writing a paper at 2 a.m. and you have to trek to the lab, it's very cold," said McDowell. "They're integral to adapting to college life. And they're integral to doing your best."

As McDowell learned the hard way, it doesn't make sense to go to school without a computer, if you can afford one. Virtually all of the 100 most-technology-savvy colleges in America – including George Mason University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and William and Mary – offer online access to course schedules. Most allow students to add or drop courses online. And more than half of these schools permit students to monitor lectures from home, according to a recent survey conducted jointly by the Web site Yahoo Internet Life and the education publisher Peterson's.

Having a computer is no longer a choice at some schools. Starting last fall, every freshman at Virginia Tech, for instance, had to bring a computer to school. The University of Maryland, Virginia, William and Mary and George Mason strongly urge students to bring one, and the vast majority of new students do. At Virginia, for instance, almost nine of 10 first-year students brought computers to school last fall, according to the university.

Officials at various colleges and universities say most families don't have a problem paying for a computer – any more of a problem, that is, than keeping up with rising tuitions. That's because most parents factor the cost of the machines into the overall cost of a university education. Ardoth Hassler, director of academic and information technology services at Georgetown, estimates that a computer and calculator cost no more, relative to tuition at a private college or university today, than a typewriter and a slide rule did a generation ago.

Still, those who find themselves struggling financially can often find help. At Virginia Tech, needy students can apply for up to $3,000 in federal financial aid above that needed for tuition and fees in order to buy a computer, and the school's policy is that students will not be denied admission simply because they can't afford a computer. Other schools also offer scholarship and loan programs.

Having the money is just the first step, though. Getting the right machine is crucial because compatibility problems can be frustrating and expensive. Sophie West arrived at William and Mary last year and found that her new Apple computer didn't work very well with classmates' Windows-based PCs during a history class project when they set about creating a Web site. So she had to borrow a computer and go to a university lab to finish her work.

"It was a little frustrating, when I thought I could use my computer and it wasn't working out the way I wanted it to," West said. She considered getting a different computer but decided against it. "That's a little bit of an expensive proposition."

To avoid such complications, students and parents should carefully review recommendations from their college before buying a new computer. Almost every school offers advice at the school's Web site or in materials mailed to incoming students. As a rule of thumb, students should get something fast and current.

For now, the consensus seems to be a machine with a processor speed of at least 350 MHz, 64 megabytes of memory, 5 gigabytes of free hard disk space, a CD-ROM drive and a Windows 98 or Mac OS 8.5 operating system. (Just remember that these specifications will probably be outdated sooner than you might expect.) A large color monitor and ink or laser printer also help. A special on-campus Ethernet link may be required for students, and computers should be able to accommodate that. In addition, a fast modem will be essential for students living off campus. Laptop computers should have active matrix screens, which are expensive but easy on the eyes.

When in doubt, ask for help at a computer store or contact the school. A growing number of university officials recommend buying the computers through university cooperatives or stores – a step that often costs more but can ensure students get the right equipment the first time around.

At Virginia, Cavalier Computers, the university-operated computer store, provides "Net Ready" systems for students. Hoya Computing at Georgetown offers standardized equipment at competitive prices. Virginia Tech offers campus-ready machines at its bookstore. Some schools have contracts with computer makers to allow students to get specifically tailored machines at good prices.

"Purchasing standard equipment and software means it will be easier for you to connect to campus service – a high-speed network that permits access to the library, e-mail, the Web, course materials, printer services, etc.," said Georgetown's Hassler.

"Beware of taking Mom or Dad's old PC to campus. Some older equipment may not be Y2K compliant. Really old equipment will be difficult or impossible to connect to campus services," she said. "The computer will be underpowered for current versions of software, making it difficult to exchange files with professors and other students."

And for those still in doubt about taking their own computer, herewith a few class assignments to consider:

At William and Mary, history professor Scott Nelson makes all class material available to students on the Web. What's more, he requires every student to create a Web site and then urges them to discuss the class online.

At American University this fall, some students will be able to "attend" a class on Latin American culture almost completely online if they choose. Other AU students will be able to receive lectures about satellite imagery and human rights from professors at the New University of Lisbon.

At George Mason, students study Spanish, French civilization, astronomy and a host of other subjects online. Catholic University has begun offering courses in digital sculpture and multimedia design, and it now has a major in digital arts for students interested in using computers to make art.

But it is on the mundane, daily activities of college life, like writing papers in the middle of the night, enrolling in the right courses, or gossiping online with friends, that computers have the biggest impact.

"It's just become as regular a part of their lives as their alarm clock, their pen and paper, books, their libraries and even the phones," said Dianna Benton, coordinator of Virginia Tech's new computer requirement. "The technology is so integrated it's not even an option. This culture of a university now is wired."

Robert O'Harrow Jr. covers technology and privacy issues for The Post.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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