THEY grew up with MTV, cable television, and a home computer. Pagers, cellular telephones, and the Internet hold no mysteries for them. Now the "wired" generation is off to college - and university officials are struggling to keep up.
*Last year, while exploring the Internet, a global network of computers, officials at Bates College were astounded to find a photographic computer tour of their own Lewiston, Maine, campus. Intrigued, they found that a Bates freshman had done the work to show off the college to long-distance friends. The college-relations office has since hired Rob Pelkey to get the school into the Internet, making Bates information available electronically worldwide.
*At Texas A&M, a plan to hook up a few dorm rooms to the campus computer network has expanded so that the school is now in the middle of wiring all its 10,000 dorm rooms. Soon students will be able to send their assignments in via computer and check the library's card catalog without stepping outside their rooms.
*Rochester Institute of Technology already offers dorm-room network connections. But "that's where we were 10 years ago," scoffs Tad Hunt, a computer-science senior who lives at an on-campus unit called Computer Science House. There, students have built their own dorm network using heavy-duty workstations and connections 50 times faster than what the university offers.
The computing and telecommunications revolution that is rumbling through the workplace is forcing American colleges and universities to make dramatic changes. They're getting wired in a wired age. But no matter how fast they move forward, some students - the "superwired" or "digerati," as they are sometimes called - are demanding more.
One example is Emory University in Atlanta. For the first time this fall, students have access from their dorm room to the campus computer network, the Internet, cable TV, four foreign-language TV networks, and the university's in-house station.
"The students that are very Net aware, they have been pushing this," says Bob Hamilton, assistant to the residential services director at Emory University. "But by and large, this is something that's come from the university."
Doorways to education
Emory and many other universities are eagerly forging ahead, because they believe the technology will create new educational opportunities. Access to the Internet is standard on most college campuses. The same institutions are now pushing to wire up classrooms and dormitories.
A survey released last month by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities found that slightly more than half of its surveyed institutions had computers in classrooms; 22 percent had electronic links to individual dorm rooms.
There's also a less-altruistic reason behind the technology push. Universities want to make sure their dorms stay filled.
"Going down to the computer lab to type out an English paper used to be OK," says Gary Schwarzmueller, executive director of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International in Columbus, Ohio. Now "people want [network] access from their room.... When you don't provide it and the apartment complex down the road does, you've got a problem."
Once they wire up dorm rooms, colleges have to provide residents with technical support. So a new kind of student worker - the "resident consultant" - is popping up in dormitories. Christa McHugh, a computer science major at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, is one. She gets a free room and $100 a month to do a job that would make most professional computer technicians blanch.
She gets dorm residents hooked up to the campus network no matter what kind of machine they own - an IBM-compatible or a student's own jerry-built contraption. For one undergraduate, "I had to take apart the whole computer," she recalls. "I had pieces all over the floor. But I got it back together. And it worked!"
While many undergraduates are starting to use the Internet to distribute their resumes via computer, the digerati are starting on-line businesses. Reuven Bell, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is balancing a double major in religion and psychology while building his Internet-consulting and electronic-mail business. "We're not paying our way through school yet," Mr. Bell says. "If the customers we have at the moment will pay, we'll do decently."
The World Wide Web
Other students are publishing on the graphical part of the Internet known as the World Wide Web. Graduate students at the University of Cincinnati have started an on-line journal of history-book reviews. Undergraduates at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., are putting out their own on-line multimedia weekly. "What still amazes me about it is that this is a liberal arts college," says Frank Sikernitsky, the magazine's editor in chief. "We're not engineering students."
Steve Sawczyn isn't running a business; he's using the new technology to compensate for blindness. "There's more technology in this room than in most of the computer labs," he says of his room at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt. He carries a portable computer equipped with a credit-card-sized voice synthesizer that reads out loud his disk-based textbook, electronic mail, and draft versions of his college papers. Mr. Sawczyn also carries a pager that reads messages out loud and uses a device to turn a electronic text into Braille. "Due to necessity, I'm forced to the front" of the technological curve.
Usually, the technology of the superwired complements the university's offerings. Sometimes, it competes. At Bates College, Mr. Pelkey, now a sophomore, has built a student-run alternative to the college's computer network.
The the network is powered by only an average desktop computer, so connections are slow if too many people log on. But Pel-key boasts a more advanced electronic-mail program and better news-reading features than the official network. And he's added a computer game. "You can play Tetris on this thing!" he exults.