Cambridge, Mass. — Student Robert Sedgwick hoards quarters to drop into video machines, and Harvard University approves of the idea. He is not playing Pac Man or any other popular game. He studies. He writes papers and reports.
''These coin machines are so convenient,'' he says. ''They save me time and space.''
A doctoral student in the graduate school of education, Mr. Sedgwick spends many of his study hours at a new Digital Decmate 1 word processer at the Gutman Library here. He utilizes a processor to produce research assignments, to store information, to develop new ideas.
''Harvard students are part of a two-year experiment,'' says Robert Carroll, director of the campus Office Information and Communications Systems. ''Harvard wants to know whether students not involved in technology, mathematics, or science can use word processors as a regular tool in their everyday study.
''The university wants to know whether students can improve their classroom work, especially the writing of papers, by using word processing machines.''
College administrators around the country are toying with ideas of how a liberal-arts student can best utilize computer technology.
''Some people conceive of a computer in every pot,'' says L. Eudora Pettigrew , associate provost for instruction at the University of Delaware, where there are several coin-operated machines. ''The computer is a supplement, a tool, not a substitute for education. To get an education, a student must think.''
''The use of personal word processors by students could be the tip of the iceberg in a technological revolution on campus,'' says Mark Van Baalen, who along with Lewis Law heads up the Harvard program. Preliminary studies have been made on word processor use at other schools, he says, but no definitive review has been made.
The Harvard program is an experiment jointly financed by the university and Digital Equipment Corporation. Digital has provided 40 coin-operated machines, worth $25,000, on campus. All but nine are operating - some available 24 hours a day - in dormitories, libraries, and classroom buildings throughout the campus. Two practice units are available, too.
The terms of the Harvard-Digital partnership are simple. Rates are $2 an hour after an introductory month at $1 an hour. Those rates could be reduced if enough people use the machines. Break-even use is estimated to be six hours a day per machine at the current rate.
Benefits for Digital are future profits if the machine is a success at Harvard. College campuses then become a market for coin-operated processors.
This project could transform word processors from a ''mysterious new technology'' into a ''valuable tool for college students nationwide,'' Mr. Carroll says. But students are not flocking to the new machines.
''I have my own typewriter,'' says Karen Perkins, a freshman from Boston. ''I see no need of using a word processor.'' She adds, however, that she really ''doesn't know anything about the coin machines.''
Another freshman, Hal Ingels of Wilmington, Mass., has a different idea.
''The processor is a great help,'' he says. ''It's a convenience. I can correct mistakes without retyping the whole thing. It's great for making drafts of long papers and reworking them.'' His one criticism: even at the $1 rate, ''it uses up money.''
Harvard is not installing the machines to make a profit, Carroll insists. As overseer of the project, he poses these questions:
Will students buy the idea? ''Traditionally computers have been used in the scientific and technical areas,'' he says. ''They have not been utilized in the social sciences and humanities.''
Will users get better marks? ''Some faculty members . . . are concerned the computer may be just another expensive tool that will have little impact on student achievement.''
Are processors easy to use? ''The big issue in the scientific community is how a machine works. Little thought has been given to whether the processor is practical. This is the first attempt on a campus to consider the ease of use.''