Personal computers at college. Dartmouth reports positive results -- and concerns

By , taff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last year, freshmen at Dartmouth College were offered the deal of a lifetime on a Macintosh computer -- half price -- because of a special arrangement between the school and the Apple company. Eighty percent of the incoming class snapped up the low-cost machines. This year, the numbers of first-year Dartmouth students deciding to buy were somewhat lower -- only 70 percent of the new class, 700 out of 1,000. Still, this means that the 4,500 students here have access, in many cases right in their own dorm rooms, to well over 3,000 computer work stations. That's a ``revolution'' of sorts, even on a campus that has long emphasized computing as an educational tool, says psychology professor George Wolford.

To Dr. Wolford, who describes himself as having been involved with computers ``forever,'' Dartmouth's decision to sharply boost the numbers of machines on campus begged a question.

It seemed obvious, in his view, that ``someone should see what really would happen.'' Would the proliferation of computers affect students' academic performance? Would the Macintosh invasion of dormitories change social life on campus? He didn't particularly want to take on the project himself, he says, but no one else did, either. So Wolford formed a committee of three, with two other faculty members, and took up the work.

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They decided to concentrate mainly on three areas:

Possible impact on the makeup of the student body. Who's buying the Macs? What are the implications of that?

Impact on ``student life.'' Were the machines affecting personal relationships and social activity?

Impact on the curriculum. Particularly, has there been any noticeable effect on learning?

In all areas, Wolford hastens to explain, the data are incomplete. His committee has only been gathering information for one year, and their resources of time and people have been sparse. In some instances, he knows the data are ``bad,'' since it often hasn't been possible to have well-defined ``control groups,'' without computers, against which to compare findings.

Still, Wolford and his colleagues have come up with some intriguing initial results.

In the first area (who's buying the Macs and why), they found that men purchased computers at a higher rate than women (perhaps no surprise), and that Asians, as an ethnic group, had by far the highest percentage of computer buyers (again, no surprise to Wolford). What he did find significant, however, was the fact that blacks bought the machines at the lowest rate -- something that couldn't be explained simply by family income, since the purchase can be worked into the financial aid package provided by

the school. He speculates that the reason may be a lack of interest in computers.

``It's something to keep an eye on,'' he says, since ``you don't want that group to have another disadvantage.'' With many courses using the machines, he adds, having a Macintosh could become ``important to doing well here.''

In the second area, student life, the findings were ``diffuse,'' says Wolford. He had expected that individually owned computers would mean many more people studying in their dorm rooms than in the past, with consequent friction between those who want quiet and those who want liveliness. ``But we didn't see much of this,'' he says.

In fact, there's evidence the Macs have improved some aspects of campus social life. For instance, dorm and fraternity newsletters, which used to be ``trashy'' and always late, according to Wolford, are ``often works of art'' -- produced by students who've mastered the Macintosh's graphic capabilities.

Kristie Sells, a sophomore from New Jersey who bought a Mac last year, adds that lots of students get involved in lively, even vocal, competitions on their computers, playing games like ``Dungeons and Dragons.'' The electronic mail also helps people keep in touch, she says, helping rather than hurting social life.

In the third area, impact on academic life, the faculty committee has so far found no evidence that the computers have improved learning at Dartmouth. They kept track of the 24 largest lecture courses in an effort to spot differences between students with Macs and those without them. Mostly, says Wolford, they could find ``no significant difference'' in grades, though in the cases where there seemed to be the beginning of a difference, it favored the non-Mac owners. Even so, a survey of student opinion showed that Mac owners felt overwhelmingly that the machine was helping them academically.

Papers produced on the Macs, interestingly, tended to be 50 percent longer than those typed or written longhand. This doubtless reflects the fact that ``students still equate `long' with `good,' '' says Wolford. Editing and writing are smoother and easier on the computers, which might be tempting students to procrastinate on assignments even more than usual. ``Instead of the night before, it might be two hours before,'' he suggests.

Miss Sells, on the other hand, stoutly affirms that the ease of working on her Mac has helped her ``get things done earlier.''

A fourth, more minor concern was whether or not the proliferation of Macs had cut down on use of the campus's central computers. Actually, says Wolford, the students who own their own machines use the main computers ``twice as much as those who don't,'' since they're easily able to draw on the programs and data stored in the central units through their Macs. There has, however, been a ``first ever'' drop in time-sharing use of the central machines. He speculates that the reason for this may be a drop in

the number of faculty using the time-sharing system for word processing, since more of them, too, have their own personal machines.

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