Wired '95

by Rick Denison

[Photo: Mike Perron]

In the basement of Adams Hall, Mike Perron completes yet another student computer hookup in preparation for the new school year. In eight days in early September, the College's information services team installed more than five hundred new student computers.

Bates College is (choose all that apply):

  1. A 109-acre, tree-lined campus in Lewiston, Maine.
  2. A family of 1,600 students, a few hundred current and former faculty members, and close to 15,000 alumni who share a bond to (a) above.
  3. A mind-set that involves respect for others, regard for the intellect, and, above all, curiosity about the world.
  4. Miles of coaxial cable and glass fiber that link students, teachers, and staff members, via their computers, into a “virtual campus” that coexists with the physical one — and connects Bates to millions of people and their computers around the planet.

Until recently, most people would have chosen one or all of the first three possibilities. Now, choice (d), what might be termed “Virtual Bates,” has the capacity for enhancing all the others and changing forever the nature of teaching and learning at the College.

For old Bates hands, the cyber-transformation of the campus over the past twenty-five years has been little short of stupefying.

Where typewriters once clacked and carbon paper smudged, now microcomputers whirr and high-volume copiers copy. Where an overtaxed mainframe computer once required minutes for a simple log-on, desktop Macintoshes provide comparable computing power and worldwide reach. Where courses on computing once involved mastery of arcane programming techniques, commercial software now eliminates the pioneering, do-it-yourself atmosphere but makes computers relevant in every academic discipline.

And where a query from an interested high-schooler once meant answering a letter with a copy of the Viewbook,now the initial contact is likely to come via the Internet’s World Wide Web and answered by electronic mail.

With nearly every first-year student arriving on campus with substantial computing experience — if not with his or her own personal computer — the College has had to work hard to keep pace with student expectations.

Once those students matriculate at Bates, they encounter professors who are creating ever-more-inventive ways to explore and use the vast electronic world computers make possible.

In the biggest technological transformation at Bates since the telephone, each student and nearly all faculty and staff members now have access to the campus computer network and through it the great worldwide Internet.

Already there are glimpses that demonstrate the power of the connected campus and the inventiveness of Bates people in using that power.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface,” said Martha A. Crunkleton, dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs. Crunkleton herself is a devoted computer user and Internet surfer, receiving and responding to dozens of e-mail messages per day and finding research materials in distant libraries.

She points to the ability of networked computers to extend classroom discussions far beyond the strictures of time and space.

“Students can talk to each other around the clock about questions that come up in class,” she said. “Then the faculty member can log on and check in with them. And so when students get to class, they’ve already spent a lot of time thinking and talking with one another about the material. When they get to class, they’re more `present’ and they’re more prepared.

“Some faculty members have told me that [discussions over the network] have helped students who were reluctant to speak in class to find their voice — first by writing it on the machine, and gradually they get enough positive feedback that they feel confident talking in class,” she said.

Crunkleton also pointed to a recent Mellon Foundation grant to Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby that will be used to upgrade foreign-language laboratories with the latest equipment, including computers [see “Grants and Awards”].

[Photo: Martha Crunkleton]

Right: Dean of the Faculty Martha Crunkleton maintains a lively e-mail correspondence, receiving, responding to, and sending dozens of electronic messages each day.

[Photo: Jim Bauer]

Far right:Jim Bauer of the College's information services helps make sure students (who have the opportunity to buy computers from the College) are able to tap into the Bates computer network and the Internet from their dorm rooms.

One of the faculty members Crunkleton mentioned is Robert Allison, professor of religion, who was one of the first Bates teachers to realize the value of computers and networking in the humanities. He has established a “home page,” or personal site, on the World Wide Web. (The Web, or WWW, is a collection of multi-media locations on the Internet; with a point-and-click of a computer’s mouse, users can access the graphics, sounds, and images at thousands of linked Web sites.)Allison, one of the few researchers ever allowed access to the library of the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery at Mount Athos, has made available on his home page digitized versions of the watermarks that help scholars trace the origins of the old documents. He believes the new campus network will prove a boon to undergraduate research. The global reach of the Internet makes previously inaccessible material as close as a mouse click.

“It also means I can now use formerly hard-to-find texts in classes,” he said. “Until recently, I had to order entire anthologies for the few texts I really wanted my students to study. Or, if I wanted to keep down expenses for my students and avoid ordering books from which only a few texts would be read, I would be forced to adjust the content of my courses to fit the anthologies. That meant courses had to cohere with what was considered important to study several years ago. Now most of the texts are individually available on publicly available archives. Students can download to their own computers, free of charge, whatever texts I assign.”

Another computer-savvy faculty member is Drake Bradley, Dana Professor of Psychology. When Bradley looked at programs for simulating statistical data, he didn’t like what he saw. So he created Datasim, an inexpensive software package for the teaching of statistics and data analysis. The program, written in the computer language BASIC, is so good it won a top award in the national “Best of BASIC” contest in 1991.

Faculty members — even those who admit they are not high-tech buffs — are finding dozens of time-saving and job-enhancing uses for their computers. For instance, Becky Corrie, associate professor of art and chair of the department, could, if she wanted, stay on-line with the Bates network from morning to night. She and her husband, John, an assistant in instruction in the music department, have installed a modem in their home computer so they can dial in to the College network over ordinary telephone lines.

Becky Corrie is sold on the computer as a way to make her life more efficient.

“I frequently have to travel to the Harvard library to do research,” she said. “In the past, I’d spend half the day just looking up books in the card catalog before I could even begin my work. Now I can access the catalog electronically from my home or office and locate the books I need before I make the trip.”

Corrie also finds electronic mail to be indispensable. Not only does it give her almost instant access to professional colleagues, but it also provides support for faculty members’ role as student advisors.

“E-mail is especially important for keeping in touch with students who are studying off campus,” she said. “It used to be that an exchange of letters with JYA students could take weeks. They were at
a real disadvantage when it came to limited-enrollment courses or finding a thesis advisor. Now we communicate very quickly — and we’re saving the College money on international phone calls.”

Students, many of whom have grown up with computers in their homes and schoolrooms, are less daunted by the prospect of computer-aided learning than their elders. Some, like sophomore Rob Pelkey of Pembroke, New Hampshire, have become instant computer gurus on their arrival at Bates.

Pelkey is one of the campus experts on the World Wide Web. His “virtual tour” of the campus, which he created on his own time, has been expanded into a centerpiece of Bates’s own WWW home page. He has since been hired by the Office of College Relations to help coordinate the College’s presence on the Web.

The network’s “potential has yet to be realized,” he said. “You have a lot of people using e-mail; you have a lot of file-sharing between computers. There’s still a long way to go.”

He takes issue with the common complaint that computers have accelerated the alienation of people from one another, citing the high volume of e-mail between computer users.

“I think it’s actually increasing faculty-student interaction here at Bates,” he said. “Also, inter-student communication — it’s just opened up a whole new dimension.

“It’s not exactly the return of Victorian letter-writing, but it’s close.”

Other students, perhaps not as computer-hip as Pelkey, nevertheless are enthusiastic about the possibilities opened up by technology. Rastko Kovacevic, a senior from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, is one.

“I use (the network and Internet) to enhance my knowledge of topics that are of interest to me, such as photography and stereo equipment,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I did all my research for camera, stereo equipment, and bike purchases on the Internet.

“As far as communication with professors and students goes, it has been made much easier and more convenient by the introduction of e-mail,” said Kovacevic. “Most of my communication with my thesis advisor is through e-mail these days.”

Also, says Kovacevic, the campus network allows students to run Bates-owned programs off the network, so students don’t have to purchase very expensive software packages.

[Photo: Rob Pelkey]

Right:sophomore Rob Pelkey has become a well-known computer guru at Bates.

[Photo: Tom Hayward]

Far right: reference librarians like Tom Hayward have become computer super-sleutths, seeking titles from a variety of on-line services and getting them into the hands of users.

No part of the Bates campus has been transformed as radically as the library. Card catalog? A thing of the past. Students now find books — at far-flung libraries as well as within Ladd’s walls — via computer terminals. Interlibrary loan? Conducted exclusively over computer networks. As for the role of the research librarian, just ask longtime humanities reference librarian Tom Hayward.”I like to tell people that in the nineteen years I’ve been at Bates, my job title has stayed the same, but my job has changed radically,” he said.

“Although more and more information is becoming available on-line all the time, most of those electronic citations still lead to print documents,” he said. “Getting those sources into the hands of our users is the function of our collection development and interlibrary loan responsibilities. These are real growth areas right now, both at Bates and around the country.”

It took a lot of work to realize this cyber-change, most of it falling on the shoulders of the College’s Information Services staff. Over the past few years they have been upgrading computers, adding software, and steadily expanding the reach of the network.

Jim Bauer oversaw much of the labor, and now he and the others have reason to take pride in a system that puts Bates in the forefront of networked campuses.

“We’ve been lucky in a lot of ways,” Bauer said. “Often, where the College had done electrical work in the past, there was [underground] conduit. So we were able to take advantage of that. When the new telephone system went in in 1991, we knew that eventually we were going to want to network the dorms, so we put in extra conduit. So we haven’t had to do much new digging.

“Also, we’re a compact campus. Colleagues at other institutions have to worry about public utilities commissions, state transportation departments — for us those issues are minimal.”

The latest and most spectacular manifestation of the network’s growth came shortly after classes resumed in September. Information Services called it “the Blitz.” In eight days, more than five hundred new student computers were connected to the network. Now every student with a computer and the right hardware has access to the digital world.

What is Bates’s place in that world? After all, colleges and universities all over the country — indeed, the world — are tied into what is becoming known as the Net. Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” is finally coming to life.

Perhaps, as Martha Crunkleton noted, the principles that have nurtured Bates through its first 140 years will gain even more strength as access to information becomes the natural inheritance of everyone on the planet.

But Crunkleton also issued a prediction.

“If we were just passing out information in our classes, the machine would put us out of business,” she said. The faculty’s task is to teach students to distinguish information from knowledge and knowledge from wisdom.

“There’s a common suggestion in our society that information is everything,” she said. “But information is not everything. A lot of information is garbage. So I don’t see the computer and the network ever causing us to get rid of our classrooms. But I do see them having an effect on any passive dissemination of information.

“That is not what we’re going to be doing in our courses. What we’re going to be doing is teaching the habits of mind that students need in order to use the computer for what it can do — and the good judgment to know what the computer can’t do.”

For Bates, part of the adventure ahead will be determining that distinction.