Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1998
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JUNE 1998



For some students it's an obsession. For others, an invaluable tool. For better and for worse, the Internet has dramatically altered campus culture. It may never be the same again.

O N    C A M P U S E S

Snared by the Web
By Joanne P. Cavanaugh
Illustration by Janet Woolley
   Welcome to my home page (or its reasonable facsimile). For your enjoyment and illumination, I've chronicled a few tales about the Internet phenom on campus today. The Net is fast. It's cheap. And, in ways both good and bad, it's out of control.

AS A HOPKINS FRESHMAN, Elissa Knight e-mailed her parents every day. She sent along snippets about her roommates. Her mother e-mailed health updates on sick relatives or news of her brother's year at college. Today, when questions come up about insurance numbers or financial aid information, the family heads for computers in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Baltimore.

"It doesn't seem that Hopkins is nearly as far away from home as it is," says dad, Doug Knight. And mom, Karen: "It's fun to hear about what she's doing. I ask her a lot of questions about this and that."

As a sophomore, Knight has cut back her Hopkins-to-home electronic contact. She visits the Homewood Academic Computing Lab (known as the HAC lab) about four times a week, and sends two rounds of e-mail to her parents weekly. Says Knight, 19: "I have gotten better every semester. I used to always be on e-mail, but it can be too distracting."

WHEN TIM LEARY, A SENIOR, got to Hopkins four years ago, he'd never used e-mail. Now, he depends on the World Wide Web to get homework assignments for his lab in Analysis of Psych Data class. "I'm on the Net more this year than ever before because classes require it," says Leary, hunched over a computer in the HAC lab.

At midterm, he sent e-mail to his instructor acknowledging that he may have bombed the last test: "You may see a lot of me in the future," Leary wrote. "I can accept that," his instructor answered. Leary points out that e-mail gives him time to put his thoughts together. "You can say what you want to say," he says. "I told him why I did so bad on the test, and it's not like I went to him and was in his face. Now he has time to think about it."

KATE MCGRAIL IS IN THE HAC LAB because her computer is broken . Written on her hand in ballpoint ink is a list of things to do-- including giving her birthday list to her Dad, looking up books on the Internet, talking to a professor, and e-mailing a friend.

She's here mostly to search for English language synopses of two Spanish novels from the 19th and 20th centuries, Rimas Leyendas Cartas Desde Mi Celda and Dona Perfecta. Why look on the Net? "Well, everything is on the Net," she says."If I don't find it on one Web site, I can click onto the next. It's a lot simpler and more convenient. In the library, you have to go back to the card catalog, and if you look up, like, sociology journals from the 1970s, it's so random whether they even have them or not."

What about the accuracy and legitimacy of information posted on the Internet? "I check two or three Web sites," she says. "It's pretty reliable. I haven't been screwed yet."

After several searches, McGrail does find a summary of Dona Perfecta. It's written by a couple of students from another university. For the other synopsis, she will have to resort to the old-fashioned method of checking the shelves at the library.

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED HOW PREVALENT the Internet was becoming here on campus in fall 1996, while teaching in the Writing Seminars as part of a graduate fellowship. One day early in the semester, I gave a quiz asking my 18 students to list the resources they use to research a subject, such as autism. In nearly all cases, their first answer was: The Internet. It was a jolt.

As a graduate student, I, too, used the Internet and spent hours in the HAC lab. The two attached rooms in Krieger Hall were nearly always jammed, even when much of campus seemed quiet. The lab, in fact, is where I first clicked on a World Wide Web search engine. Hey, I was poor, access was free, and the information cornucopia was nothing shy of incredible. As part of my master's thesis on human rights issues in Cuba, I looked up transsexual rights groups on the Internet and found a few in Texas and California, which I then called. I'm still not sure how I would have found those sources, and certainly not so quickly.

Today, I teach the Rudiments of Nonfiction course as a part-time lecturer. More and more, I see this electronic esprit becoming part of the classroom. In addition to the research potential--I warn my students about verifying the legitimacy of information they find--there's also the appeal of e-mail chats, term papers filed on-line, and homework assignments posted electronically.

So to find out more about the phenomenon, I spent dozens of hours this spring in the HAC lab talking to students and computer techs. The usage figures I stumbled across are astounding (Can you guess how many students have their own personal Web page? Try a third of the undergraduate student body). I also asked other instructors what they thought about the academy's new electronic environment. Some are hip to the possibilities. Others are not so impressed.

"In three years, it has overwhelmed the country. Every classroom seems to need it," Steve Dixon, anti-computer curmudgeon and professor in The Writing Seminars, told me. "I have a computer at home for my girls, but if e-mail comes to me, I refuse it. I don't like the way it looks with all those numbers and symbols. If I need information, I go to books. I like books."

Books, of course, are still central to university study. But, at up to $200 a course, they're starting to be supplemented--if not replaced--by electronic reserves students can access via computer. Hopkins art history students, for example, can look up computer-stored "prints" of early Renaissance and other paintings--class-oriented selections of about 1,300 images. Books with such illustrations are especially costly, and real-life displays of color reproductions can take up a great deal of space.

Macie Hall, curator of the Art History Department's Visual Resources Collection, told me that, in 1994, they had started storing art images on compact disc, then shifted: "While we were getting that going, the World Wide Web was born, and we realized that would be the perfect medium. There's the accessibility for students, and the fact that it's visually oriented makes it ideal."

Some art history professors are discovering that students now recognize more elements of paintings featured on exams. I talked to Carl Strehlke, a visiting professor and a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "One of the classic test questions is to have these slide identifications," Strehlke told me. "Now, students don't have to go through several books to review because they have all these things available on computers." Or, as his colleague, Brigid Doherty, assistant professor of modern art, explained: "If I have 70 students in a class, I can't expect all those students to share one book put on reserve."

At the MSE Library, Director Jim Neal cut off e-mail after students started using research computers for personal chats.
Campus libraries, especially, are investing big money in the technology. For many, it's a figure-it-out-as-you-go sort of thing. At the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, Director Jim Neal cut off e-mail after students were using research computers for chats. "It's not that we think e-mail is inappropriate," he told me. "We have a limited number of computers."

The MSE now spends more than 10 percent of its $6 million acquisitions budget on licensing and other costs to access electronic databases, journals, encyclopedias, and other online resources--up from 1 percent seven years ago, Neal said. Add that to another half million dollars spent annually to buy software, network servers, computer terminals, and other hardware. "It's a massive increase," Neal told me, noting that the library still buys books regularly, but that funding can be shifted for departments requiring more online materials. "It will accelerate," he predicted. "More and more disciplines and fields of study will look to the electronic community to carry out teaching and research."

Overall computer costs throughout this decentralized university are difficult to track, since each department follows its own budget. Under Homewood Academic Computing alone, Hopkins spends about $3.5 million a year on such services. That includes the 125 computer terminal HAC lab, two smaller labs in the dorms and 1,220 new direct residential hook-ups, known as ResNet, for students who live on campus. Additional satellite labs, and computer-dotted student lounges, are planned as the demand goes up.

Already, I found, that demand is astounding. Take this figure from Graham Bouton, HAC's technology services administrator: The turnstile at that lab alone turns between 1,500 and 2,000 times daily. To put that number in context, consider that there are only about 3,500 undergrads at Homewood this spring, and another 1,200-plus graduate students. Of course, many of those computer users are repeat visitors. Even so, that means a third to half of the student body might visit the HAC lab on a given day. And if that's not overwhelming enough, remember that most students have some Internet or e-mail access from their dorms or off-campus apartments.

A Student Home Page Sampler

Personal home pages on the Web are a popular way for Hopkins students to express their individuality (one student posed with her pet ferret) and to advertise for future employment (you'd be surprised how many resumes are posted). Follow this link for a few of our favorites...

This doesn't mean that students are permanently wired. A lot of this activity is of the quick log-in variety. Yet keep in mind how fast this electronic evolution is going on a bigger scale. Because the Internet started going mainstream only three years ago, the students now hitting their junior and senior years are in the vanguard of a transformation.

I asked my current writing students for a little background on the computer lab scene. Why, I questioned the class of 14 in Gilman Room 429, do so many students hang out there? Expensive equipment, for one. There's a photo/text scanner and costly high-tech software like AutoCAD, a drafting program. You can also save paper (and photocopying or printing costs) by using the laser printers. Lots of students go there to write papers using word processing programs. You can download games (on the sly, since it's discouraged) or play multi-player games with someone across the room, on the other side of campus, or beyond. Then there's an increasing number of assignments, as well as journals and resources, posted on the Web. Students can get together to figure out a tough engineering problem or chemistry lab. Lastly, there's the big seller: e-mail--"sort of like passing notes in class," as one of my students said.

(I have to tell you, e-mail is usually a great contact point for me, and it helps me answer students' questions quickly. But it has drawbacks. While working up this story, I received 26 e-mail messages from students, including excuses for missed classes, questions about papers, requests for references, and apologies for work turned in late. Last semester, a few students lobbied via e-mail for grade changes. Clearly, they find the electronic medium easier than talking face to face. But I've found it can be a little too convenient. One student last fall didn't show up for half the semester, then sent me e-mail asking me to call him to talk about his problems. That didn't go over very well. I recently printed out copies of papers e-mailed by three of my students. They were late and single-spaced, and my printer jammed. So, I'm reverting: assignments are now turned in the old-fashioned way--in one big pile of stapled, double-spaced papers.)

Some students I spoke with talked about how e-mail has become an obsession for themselves or someone they know. I heard about a roommate who e-mails her boyfriend five times a day. Instead of checking the campus post office once each day, students will swing by the lab during any 15-minute break to log in. Some don't even sit down. "I was hooked," Joe Park, a junior majoring in public health, told me. "Then I hit a threshold. It gave me a headache looking at the screen. And the novelty was wearing off. When you write e-mail, people expect you to respond, and I got tired of responding."

A few years ago, Hopkins administrators figured that creating computer hook-ups in the dorms (for which students pay $20 a month) would ease the pressure on the busy HAC lab. But computers in the dorms simply upped the computer lab use--more papers on floppy disks in need of laser printers, and dependence on e-mail. "When we hooked up ResNet, the load on the lab actually increased," Lee Watkins, assistant director of Homewood Academic Computing, told me. "There's a paradoxical effect that's been noted everywhere at schools with residential networks."

"It's funny," says Watkins. "People sit next to each other and send each other e-mail. Everyone's busy, so they don't have much time. It fits into the social environment."
At Hopkins and elsewhere, electronic mail is now being posted continuously by parents, friends, professors, campus club leaders, social groups, corporations, and the university administration itself. "It's funny," Watkins said, while giving me a historical tour of the first centralized computer lab in Shaffer Hall, created way back in 1989. "People sit next to each other and send each other e-mail. Everyone's busy, so they don't have much time. It fits into the social environment."

And that's one of the undercurrents of this new campus electronic era. Hopkins students are particularly driven academically, notorious for being "throats." So where else would a bunch of tech-oriented, efficiency-driven, time-crunched, shy students hang out? Should anyone worry that this dependency may push some of the more socially phobic to withdraw even further?

I asked Susan Boswell, dean of students, about the cyber culture on campus. "I wouldn't say it's something I'm concerned about," she told me. "For some students, it gives them a means to communicate when they wouldn't otherwise. A student who won't walk across campus to see someone may e-mail them." Boswell paused. "Maybe, because of the nature of Hopkins and its rigorous academics, academic activity becomes social, if that makes any sense."

What about the pseudo-socialness of a place where people converse remotely over keyboards and software instead of coffee and books? (The Hutzler Library, or "The Hut," is still popular but has lost some undergraduate patrons, library staff told me. The turnstile there spins between 700 and 1,800 times daily. But they are expecting four computer terminals soon.)

On the question about possible social fallout, I also talked to Sharon Kugler, the university chaplain. "In theory, it's a worry," Kugler told me. "Like television or the media or anything that cuts off human contact, it makes me nervous. We ought to be aware of the potential. On the positive end, people did stop writing each other, and now they do. It's a different format, but it's an age-old thing. Some notes I've gotten have been very precious to me. Some students who maybe couldn't express themselves verbally can do so in writing."

In the HAC lab one Thursday afternoon in March, muted chatter drifts over the sound of fingers tapping keys and the soft hum of hard drives. Students cluster around the printer along one wall. Some work in groups at the PCs or Macintosh terminals. Elvira Uriarte, 21, is talking with fellow junior Santosh Chelliah about an electrical engineering class project. They predict they'll be near that same spot at about 4:30 a.m. Monday morning. Uriarte remembers the old days. "Most classes didn't require that you do stuff on the Web," she told me. "Now everything is on the Web. I'm in here all the time. When it's crowded and I can't find a computer, I think, `Ugh, I wish I could be at home.'"

The lab, which is geared to students but not off-limits to staff, is open 24 hours a day, closing only on Friday and Saturday nights. (Said Bouton, a recent graduate who runs the student-staffed operation, "I can't see the lab open at 3 a.m. on a Friday night. We haven't really gotten any complaints. I mean it is Hopkins, but people do clear out.")

This spring, Homewood Academic Computing got curious about students' changing computer habits, so they posted an electronic survey. Of the 3,025 students at Homewood who responded, nearly 77 percent said they have their own computers, up from about 68 percent last year. The vast majority, nearly 80 percent, have encountered an Internet or e-mail-related spin to one of their courses, be it doing homework on a Web page, finding online resources, or communicating via e-mail.

And fully a third who responded, 1,017, have created personal Web pages--Internet sites stocked with resumes, scanned snapshots of friends or pets, poetry, photos of fast cars or favorite fashion models.

National figures reveal similar trends in Internet use. Almost one third of all college courses apparently use e-mail, up from a quarter in 1996 and 8 percent two years before that, when the Internet started hitting the scene, according to the 1997 Campus Computing Survey, a national study of the use of information technology in higher education.

Some folks at Hopkins are pushing to merge faster onto the Internet highway. The campus Subcommittee on Electronic and Distance Educationhas recommended creating an information center where faculty can look up existing online interactive courses, as well as learn about Internet search methods, or how to incorporate Web pages into their teaching.

Typewriter-wed Dixon won't be walking into such a center anytime soon. He has other doubts about the direction the academy is taking on these electronic lines. "Some professors like e-mail because they don't have to keep office hours," Dixon told me. "It decreases the interaction between the professor and the student, and it's all done in this very cold way over e-mail."

So, as the last part of my inquiry, I called several professors to see how much of this e-stuff they already use, and what they're finding--both good and bad. I asked Ann Finkbeiner, who co-runs the science writing program in The Writing Seminars, about the legitimacy question: "The students have to do background research to write their science stories, and they seem to do that on the Web," she told me. "My only concern is the concern that most everybody has: Students don't have as many filters to tell them what is garbage and what is not. I don't know what the percentage of garbage is on the Web, but I think it's 98," she added, with a laugh. "If you do a search for galaxies, more than half the stuff you get is somebody's meanderings about visiting other planets. There is a lot of quackery out there."

I asked the same question of longtime humanities professor Richard Macksey. He also worries about students' tendency to chop off corners: "I have students who may have a five-page paper and a three-page bibliography they got off a database, though they may not have any familiarity with the works."

Even worse, say some savvy professors, is the potential for students to download term papers. When I called Ron Walters, Hopkins professor of history, he told me he has "book-marked" one of the Get-Your-Term-Paper-Here Web sites, meaning he can quickly review titles. "There are lots of canned papers placed out there on the Net," Walters told me. "I get suspicious if I get a paper topic I didn't quite assign."

On the other hand, Michael Karweit, a research professor in Chemical Engineering, has created a virtual lab for his engineering course that offers experiments students can simulate online. He says it connects the classroom to the rest of the world: "If you go on spring break somewhere and have access to the Web, you can do your homework."

But Karweit says he's not a "firm believer." Take e-mail. "If a student asks a question that's not exactly on target, I have to figure out what the question is. If a student is talking to me in person, I know in the first eight seconds [if] I'm not getting through."

Other professors are deep in cyberspace. French professor Wilda Anderson won a $2,300 Kenan Foundation grant to put an entire course online. Last fall, she created a database of 4,000 archived pages on the French Revolution: scholarly research, maps, paintings, essays, novels, memoirs, hisotrical texts and other materials. "It's a virtual museum," Anderson told me. "It was fun."

By using the virtual archive, students can compare materials to see who wrote what and when, keeping and eye out for early inspiration, or even signs of plagiarism. "I couldn't do this course without these tools," Anderson told me. "It would cost $5,000 for the number of books, and an unwieldy amount of Xeroxes. Students can work at home on their computer and zoom around. You can search instantly for the passage you know is there. Try doing that with 4,000 pages of paper."

The reviews, then, are jumbled. In the end, I'm left feeling about as ambiguous as I did when I started, amazed still at the pervasive pseudo culture the Internet age has created, though not really that surprised. As Uriarte, the electrical engineering major, put it when I asked her about Hopkins's increased dependency on the Web et al.: "It's good. It makes us learn how to use computers. We have to do it anyway when we get out of here."

Joanne P. Cavanaugh ( is senior writer at the magazine.