Where computers proliferate like ivy Dartmouth venture in Information Age education rolls boldly ahead

Few campuses look more traditional than Dartmouth's. It's a Currier & Ives vision of white clapboards, green shutters, and weather-vaned domes. But inside the ivied classroom buildings and dormitories, not far from the antique moldings and founders' portraits, lurks an impressive array of cables, monitors, keyboards, and, yes, even electronic ''mice.''

To crunch a few numbers, there are now 10 large central or host computers here, 1,500 terminal ''ports'' tied into them, and over 1,500 personal computers or ''micros'' in dorm rooms and offices, all of which can be plugged into the extensive stores of data in the larger machines, or they can be used independently. That's 3,000 computer work stations for a student body of slightly over 4,500. There are also 80 ''mini,'' or mid-sized, computers in various locations around the campus that help pump information thoughout the campus network.

The figure on ''micros'' includes some 1,200 Apple Macintosh computers, complete with ''mice,'' the palm-size devices that are slid along a desktop to manipulate images on the screen. Most of the ''Macs'' entered the dorms with this year's freshmen, who were given the opportunity to buy the machines at a substantial saving. Keeping all these computers humming demands constant vigilance, according to Richard Brown, manager of special projects at Dartmouth's Kiewit Computation Center. On average, the mini computers that keep the network running ''crash'' (automatically stop and ''reload'') once or twice a day, he estimates. This usually means short lapses in computing time for a relatively small number of users, but, as he puts it, that's better than having the registrar's message end up on somebody else's screen.

What is all this high-tech gear doing here at an institution long known as a bulwark of the liberal arts and humanities?

To answer that question, you have to look back 20 years to the development, at Dartmouth, of the first computer time-sharing system. That system, conceived by former Dartmouth president John Kemeny and his computing-science colleague, Thomas Kurtz, made the school's then much less numerous central computers accessible to a wide range of students and faculty.

In the years following, increasing numbers of Dartmouth humanities and social science scholars discovered word processing, with its ease of on-screen revision. Writing via machine is still the mainstay of liberal arts ''computing'' here. But there's also a heightening effort to develop software tailored, by instructors themselves, to the needs of particular courses.

Underlying the proliferation of computers on campus, says C. Dwight Lahr, Dartmouth's dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, is a philosophy that computing should be made easily accessible to all - that, prima facie, computers are a valuable, even an indispensable, tool for students and instructors. That's a point still very much under debate in the academic community at large, with critics pointing to dangers of impersonality in teaching and a bias toward technology in curricula.

Those caveats have been mulled by the Dartmouth faculty, too, says Dr. Lahr. He explains that about a year ago 150 Macintoshes were distributed to faculty members, with the proviso that the professors would have to find some meaningful way to use the machines in their teaching. ''There were some notable skeptics,'' says Lahr, but only two of the 150 ''Macs'' were returned.

William Arms, vice-provost for computing and planning, recalls a meeting at which one professor proclaimed, ''Technology is ruining the humanities!'' It took a while, and a bit more exposure to the machines, says Arms, but that same professor eventually recanted.

According to both Lahr and Arms, Dartmouth stands apart from other schools with extensive computer resources partly because the humanities faculty has so readily adopted the machines.

And what about the students?

''The computing facilities here are incredible,'' says Michael Ackerman, sitting on the bed in his room in venerable, red-brick Hitchcock Hall. ''That's one reason I came here,'' remarks the junior from Rye Brook, N.Y., a computer science and economics major. Motioning toward his Macintosh, he says, ''It's not a toy for me, not at all.'' He explains that the machine has been of value in everything from logic drills for a philosophy course to keeping the books for his fraternity.

Freshman Kristin Haynes of Bedford, Texas, says she hardly jumped at Dartmouth's offer of a fully equipped Macintosh for a little over $1,200 (about half the list price). ''I didn't care anything about it,'' she admits, but her parents knew a good deal when they saw it and said ''get it.'' Now she's one of over 100 students taking Dr. Kemeny's computer literacy course this term, which gives nonscientific types a hefty taste of programming. ''It's not easy,'' says the blond, smiling English major, ''but it's teaching me to order my mind.''

Upbeat student comments aside, Lahr cautions that it's a little soon to conclude that more computers mean better students. ''We're waiting for results from classes, from teaching, in order to truly evaluate the outcome,'' says the faculty dean. He does affirm, however, that computer-equipped students are better off in some very tangible ways: in their ability to turn in clearly legible papers, written on screen and run off on a printer, and in the networking capabilities the machines offer, including access to the library's on-line card catalog and electronic mail (which allows computer users to send messages to others on campus).

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