Historic mission with a new attitude

July 9, 1999

The 'mechanic arts' colleges of the US are gearing up for the next century with the net, Tony Durham reports.

They may have been founded to teach agriculture and the "mechanic arts", but the state universities and land-grant colleges of the United States are keeping pace with the times in their use of information technology. Some are setting up gigaPoPs, points of access to the Abilene project's high-capacity network that can flash massive research data files from coast to coast across America. Many are also among the 120 US universities that will use the network as a testbed for the new education and research technologies of the Internet2 project.

Web-based student registration and information systems are simplifying administration at many sites. The state university system of New York is building SUNYConnect, a virtual library covering 64 campuses.

The picture emerges from a survey by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) that examined how member institutions use and finance IT. NASULGC's 203 member institutions stem from a 19th-century movement to provide higher education for working people and strengthen the economy.

Two-thirds of the 100-odd respondents say they are participating in a virtual university or an electronic distance education project that benefits non-traditional students.

The Western Governors University is a degree-granting organisation that stretches from Alaska to Texas and takes in Guam. It delivers courses via the internet and other advanced technologies, and its members include community colleges, large public universities, private colleges and large corporations.

The Southern Regional Electronic Campus operates more like a shop window. Its web site gives students basic information about distance education courses and programmes. The students then link directly to the college or university offering the course.

Some of the country's leading centres of computing research are located in state universities. These include the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. NCSA is a powerhouse of scientific number-crunching but it is best known as the place where Marc Andreessen and colleagues developed the Mosaic browser, bringing fame and success to an obscure European research project known as the world wide web.

As wired campuses go, probably few in the public or private sector can match the University of California at Santa Cruz with its 350 computer labs, 110,000 network connections (outnumbering telephone connections), and near 100 per cent internet provision in residence hall rooms.

The level of IT spending varies enormously between institutions, from 25 per cent of operating budget down to one per cent. Five per cent is typical: half spend more than that, half spend less.

At 71 per cent of the institutions that replied, students help to fund IT investments by paying a technology fee on top of their tuition fee. Again there are huge variations, with annual technology fees ranging from $2 to $420. Some universities complained about state laws which prevent them levying a fee for technology.

Companies such as Xerox, Cisco, Bell Atlantic and Northrop Grumman have provided support for campus IT initiatives such as teleconferencing facilities and multimedia theatres, but only a little more than a quarter (26 per cent) of respondents had benefited from such corporate partnerships. NASULGC set up a national taskforce on the future of education in the information age, which has concluded that the "land-grant mission" is as relevant as ever.

According to task force member Diana Oblinger, an IBM education expert on assignment at the University of North Carolina, "the way you carry out that mission is different when information technology is in the mix. It is a different environment. It is a networked age and consequently the tools and technologies are different. But the fundamental mission is every bit as relevant."


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