They surf the web during class, get to know their soulmates through instant messaging and talk on cell phones while biking across the Quad. Make way for the technology natives.
Photo: Glenn Matsumura
By Christine Foster
10 a.m. Wake up, turn off alarm clock and immediately turn on computer, enter my log-on password and go to the bathroom to brush my teeth while it is loading up. —Paola Worsley’s technology diary
Paola Worsley’s Sony Vaio desktop computer screen is always the first thing she sees in the morning and often the last thing she sees at night. Cars on Campus Drive murmur outside the Pi Beta Phi sorority house as Worsley, still dressed in flannel pajama pants and a baggy T-shirt, checks her e-mail. Throughout the day, she shares music (legally) via a wireless computer network with Daniel and D.J., Stanford students she’s never met but who share her passion for the Counting Crows and Jay-Z. She uses instant messaging software to check in with some of her 150-plus IM buddies from California to New York. The junior communication and urban studies major talks with her best friend on a cell phone while riding her bike across campus and asks professors for recommendations via e-mail. In a single two-hour period, she might check her in-box 20 times.
The technology natives have arrived at Stanford. Worsley isn’t even especially wired—she’s typical. Ninety-eight percent of undergraduates have their own computers—the majority of them sleek laptops with wireless capability—and most have never lived in a home without one. Three-quarters sport cell phones, and many had them before they could drive. For this generation of students, technology—from the Palm handhelds in their backpacks to the iPods in their front pockets—is seamlessly integrated into their lives. “They are always living online and offline simultaneously,” says Fred Turner, assistant professor of communication.
In the 2003-04 survey of undergraduates by Stanford’s residential computing office, more than half the respondents reported using computers more than 20 hours a week. Even more telling were their comments. “I love my PC. It is my best friend. If it broke, I would be sad,” wrote one student. “I don’t understand how people used to live before the Internet existed,” wrote another. “Seriously.”
To get a sense of how technology is transforming student life, Stanford asked a half-dozen students to keep diaries of when and how they used computers, cell phones, personal digital assistants and other electronic gadgets. They documented both academic and personal use over a three-day period. These journals reveal that many students are wired almost constantly, moving effortlessly from cell phone conversations to instant messenging to web surfing and back again. Most do this without giving any thought to the double-edged sword they are wielding—the way computers can isolate users or build communities, the ease with which students can find information or misinformation and the overload all of that data can create. Nope, they simply type, click and dial away. After all, it’s all they’ve ever known.
10 a.m. Wake up, computers are already on. Reboot them. Turn on hard drive, listen to some music using headphones (roommate is still asleep) to wake up. Check e-mail, then go to CourseWork website to find out where my Math 42 section is. Use campusmap.stanford.edu to find it, then go to class there. —Andrew Buck
Andrew Buck can spend hours at a stretch alone in his room, a dimly lit space in Lambda Nu that he has furnished with seven computers. The junior biological sciences major listens to selections from his massive music collection (thousands of CDs, neatly catalogued by artist and album, in binders), tinkers with the computers and exchanges instant messages with a buddy list of 400 people. For Buck, technology is a social catalyst: “I’m a shy person,” he says. “I harness it to get around that shyness.”
E-mail, in particular, facilitates communication among Stanford students. Enterprising high school seniors seem to have set up Yahoo! Groups e-mail lists for the Class of 2008 the instant they opened their admit letters. At an activity fair each autumn, student groups collect e-mail addresses of those interested in their organizations. Push “send,” and everyone gets an announcement. For example, Worsley, the editor of the yearbook, communicates with her staff via e-mail.
These practices have pros and cons. Incoming freshmen may make friends via e-mail before they arrive, but they also may form impressions—or misimpressions—of dormmates without the benefit of personal interaction. E-mail lists walk a fine line between disseminating information and spamming. Some students get hundreds of e-mails a day—many from clubs with bloated lists. It’s also easy to e-mail everyone in a dorm or class or, as with one racist missive in 1999, the whole University. “The ability to harm, to injure with your words has multiplied exponentially,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, ’89, dean of freshman and transfer students. “In good and bad ways,” she says, e-mail lists “sort of shrink the community.”
Electronic messaging requires a different kind of social awareness. “You don’t know when someone is joking or not over IM, so it’s hard to gauge how you should respond,” Worsley says. Senior Emily Butler says she and her roommate regularly edit each other’s e-mails to be sure they haven’t said anything that could be misconstrued. “I have often had e-mail misunderstandings, particularly with my boyfriend—romantic situations make it easy for a little word to bite more harshly than it was intended to,” she says. Rich Holeton, head of residential computing, thinks the absence of nonverbal cues simply requires some getting used to. “Our bias is that face-to-face is better, but really it’s just different,” he says. “Look at the divorce rate: maybe face-to-face is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Indeed, these electronic modes of communication can both isolate and unite students. Christine Alfano, a freshman writing instructor, talks about how students will IM each other even when they are within earshot, say, in the next dorm room or across the hall. A student of Alfano’s once witnessed the following exchange: one student replied to another’s instant message with “LOL” (meaning “I’m laughing out loud”). “I know,” wrote back the other. “I can hear you.”
Such practices sometimes facilitate bonding. Buck, for example, recently started dating a woman on his hall with whom he had previously communicated only via IM. Still, he sees how technology can be distancing. “The vast majority of people are very intimidated or scared when they come in here,” Buck says, gesturing to his seven mostly home-built computers. “I get a lot of negative emotions—‘whoa, this is insane.’” In March, he got rid of two of his five monitors because his girlfriend called them “scary.”
Then there are the questions of overload and overuse. Holeton, ’75, praises the multitasking these devices allow, but one could characterize it as frenetic behavior that leads to shorter attention spans. While Worsley talks to her mom on her cell phone, she pays her credit card bill online, checks her friends’ IM away messages and plays with screensaver pictures. Junior Jen Wang synchronizes her laptop and her Palm two or three times a day. Kome Ajegbo, a freshman from Nigeria who attended high school in England, logs on to a Microsoft online community that connects friends on several different continents up to 10 times a day.
Alfano, PhD ’95, holds IM office hours so students in e-Rhetorics: Writing Persuasively in a Digital Age can pop in and ask a quick question. She can see from their sign-on how long they’ve been online. “It will say 14 hours or two days,” Alfano says. “They just don’t turn their computers off, ever.”
This behavior can have serious health consequences. Tim Bowman, a physical therapist at Vaden Health Center who has been treating Stanford students for 20 years, sees an increase in repetitive stress injuries. They now account for 10 to 20 percent of his caseload.
8 p.m. I disconnect my laptop from the network and bring it out to the common room, so I can work comfortably on the couch. I use it to transcribe music—I listen to a CD, in short bursts, then write the notes I hear on a computer music notation program. In this instance I am transcribing my father’s improvisational piano music, for which he pays me. After completing most of the transcription, I listened to another CD (of my own compositions) on my computer. My suitemate asked for a copy of the CD, so I gave her a burned one. —Emily Butler
Students don’t just use electronic devices to communicate—they use them to pursue everything from passions to hobbies to the necessities of life. Pianist and singer Butler, for example, uses her Macintosh iBook to write and transcribe pieces, to make copies of her own recordings, and to listen to and analyze the work of other musicians.
Popular music is a perennial big deal among college students. These days, some 44 percent of Stanford undergraduates have digital music players—pocket-sized devices onto which they’ve loaded hundreds or thousands of songs. Students wear the white wires and earbuds of Apple’s distinctive iPods while they bike, sunbathe, lift weights at Tresidder and make photocopies at their work-study jobs. There’s even iPod etiquette: when friends run into each other on campus, each removes one earbud so they can converse and listen to music simultaneously.
Of course, there’s the question of whether students have gathered these thousands of songs legally. Most students interviewed for this story swear they don’t download copyrighted music or movies anymore—although nearly everyone admits doing so in the past, and professors and administrators say the practice is still widespread. Last year, Stanford got 600 complaints from copyright owners about illegal downloading. (Users are asked to erase the files in question; repeat offenders have their Internet access cut off until they comply.) In March, the Recording Industry Association of America sued 89 people for allegedly swapping songs illegally over 21 university networks, including Stanford’s.
Another popular form of digital entertainment is online gaming. Wang spends 12 to 15 hours a week playing MMORPG Final Fantasy XI, a role-playing game, with people around the world—and with her drawmates on the other side of the thin wall of her Mirrielees apartment. In it, Wang’s alter ego, an Elvaan (read: elf) named Celestianna, heals and enhances others with magic. Although the mechanical engineering major spends a lot of time on the game, she points out that it has a sophisticated, compelling plot. “It’s not one of those video games that gives immediate satisfaction, only to be thrown away after two weeks of play because the player has already achieved everything in the game,” she says. “As I understand it, half of the current players have been playing since autumn 2002. I myself haven’t completed all the missions after playing for more than three months.” Wang also explains that it’s one of her primary social outlets. “Unlike most college students, I’m not partial to alcohol, so I spend my ‘off’ time socializing with my drawmates or playing with non-Stanford friends instead of getting drunk,” she says.
This generation is turning the personal check into an endangered species. The Stanford Federal Credit Union reports that student customers often go online to pay bills, check balances and apply for car loans. They pay for everything from photocopies to cappuccinos with debit cards. (“Plastic is my life,” Butler writes in her technology diary.) Sam Tuohey, vice president of information services, says these practices enable the credit union to serve 45,000 members with just 100 staff—very efficient by industry standards. But he observes that it’s harder to pitch new programs when your customers never walk through the door.
Later that evening, I set about fixing two viral computers. One of them was easy—fixed in 20 minutes. The other one was quite a bit trickier, and the problem is still not resolved. This resident asked me why viruses exist. I explained that even in the world of computer nerds, there are good and bad people, and some people just get a kick out of wreaking technological havoc. —Ian Spiro
In the midst of cell phones ringing and instant messages chiming are a handful of students who are thinking about the consequences of this wired world. And some of them are logging off. Senior Ian Spiro is visibly tech-savvy: not only is he a computer science major, he uses FreeBSD, an operating system that among computer geeks is considered the “next level of elitism after Linux”; he works as a residential computer coordinator, helping his dormmates fix their machines when things go awry. Yet he has stopped using instant messaging, he refuses to have a cell phone, and the gadget he is most excited about is his used bike. The decision to stop using IM “is causing my friends more problems than me,” Spiro says. “They have no concept how attached they are to this. The friends who aren’t lazy will call me on the phone and arrange to do something in person.”
Spiro, who describes himself as a semi-Luddite, is interested in exploring the effects of technology. In winter quarter, he took Communication 269: Computers and Interfaces, which asks students to come up with a prototype of a computer-based product to improve life in a developing country. A guest speaker got Spiro thinking about connections between technology and wealth disparity. He toys with the idea that his pared-down lifestyle could have global impact. “This may be a stretch, [but] maybe my approach to technology would have some greater implications,” Spiro writes in his technology diary. “If I stay on my current trajectory, 10 years from now I will drive an old compact car, use a relatively old computer, live in a small, slightly crappy house or apartment. If everyone did this, there could be a lot more technology and resources for lesser-developed countries.”
A few students take the low-tech approach a step further and choose not to own computers—although that doesn’t mean they never log in. Vic Wu, for example, is as technologically connected as the next guy. The senior political science major reads the New York Times online each morning, checks his e-mail regularly and uses the postal service’s website to track job applications he has mailed. But his computer is down a cold set of concrete stairs in the basement of Castaño House. When Wu and his parents visited Stanford from their home in Taiwan, they saw the nicely appointed computer clusters in each dorm and decided he would be fine without a CPU of his own.
And even after nearly four years in a computer-crazy student culture, Wu thinks they made the right choice. Isn’t he missing out on something? “People tell me that. I’m like—no,” he says, shaking his head and laughing. “I only need what I need.” He often has his pick of the five Macs and three PCs in the dorm cluster and he keeps his files on a central Stanford server, so he can access them wherever he goes. “I don’t even have to carry a disk,” Wu says.
But he does carry a cell phone, and uses it about a half-dozen times a day. And, like many, he doesn’t have one of those old-fashioned phones that plugs into a wall jack in his dorm room. “I switched over to the cell phone because it gives me greater mobility and enhances my ability to be reached and to reach others,” Wu says. Director of communication and network services Jay Kohn says there has been a 25 percent decrease in land lines in undergrad rooms during the past five years and a corresponding increase in cell phone usage. That raises a safety concern: when students call 911 from a cell phone, police can’t quickly determine their location.
1:15 p.m. Smart boards in class, easy-fold and moveable tables. PowerPoint used for discussion—used hearing-aid microphone to communicate with teacher Larry Leifer. Sat in height-adjustable chairs and used laptop to share information with class and project onto the smart boards. —Kome Ajegbo
Mechanical engineering professor Leifer’s classroom in Wallenberg Hall looks like a futuristic scene come to life. The small tables are on wheels, allowing the class to reconfigure into groups. Students scattered about in ergonomically correct chairs can bring their own laptops or check them out from a rolling metal cabinet. Anyone in the class can type in commands that display a website on a large screen. And the notes from the classroom whiteboards can be saved or printed. This particular class, a freshman seminar called Designing the Human Experience, also benefits from a tiny wireless microphone that feeds into Leifer’s hearing aid, amplifying his students’ voices.
Some, like Ajegbo, just watch and listen to Leifer, while others type silently on their laptops. Leifer, ’62, MS ’63, PhD ’69, acknowledges he can’t be sure whether the laptop users are taking notes or chatting with a friend on the other side of the world. “If you are downloading music, you have to play it for the rest of us,” he jokes.
Leifer’s class, however, is relatively unusual. Many Stanford classrooms look much as they did 10 (or 50) years ago: students, taking notes with pen and paper, listen to a professor lecture—with perhaps the substitution of a PowerPoint presentation for a blackboard. Some students take notes on laptops, but many say that computers are too cumbersome to carry around campus. That’s true even in Wallenberg Hall, a showpiece in the Main Quad outfitted in 2002 with high-tech classrooms. It looks great, but in the lobby you might overhear students complaining that the technology is “gratuitous.”
That’s not to say that computers haven’t improved the learning experience. Their democratizing influence allows a student who might hesitate to approach a faculty giant during office hours to pop her an e-mail. And because the Internet is always on, students can more easily collaborate on projects when their schedules don’t mesh.
Technology has also made a big dent in course management, says Lois Brooks, the director of academic computing. About 40 percent of classes use CourseWork, a homegrown program that enables professors to create course home pages, post syllabi and other documents, make announcements to students and give online quizzes. Similarly, panFora allows students to discuss classwork in an always-available online forum.
In some cases, students don’t even have to leave their dorm room to hear a lecture—they can view it online. Mehran Sahami, a lecturer who teaches an introductory programming course in the computer science department, admits that this has pros and cons. Classes like Sahami’s—mostly in technical fields like CS—were initially taped so continuing-education students with full-time jobs could take classes through the Stanford Center for Professional Development. Now, however, anonymous surveys show that 10 to 50 percent of on-campus students take advantage of recorded classes. Some, like Spiro, register for conflicting courses knowing that they can watch one online. Others, Sahami concedes, use the service to avoid getting out of bed in time for 9 a.m. lectures.
The recorded classes are “a nice resource if students miss a course for whatever reason or if they want to review a lecture and watch it at their own pace,” says Sahami, ’92, MS ’93, PhD ’99. “But they might in some cases be less inclined to go in person, which means they have no opportunity to ask questions.” He also worries that students who watch online might be more apt to multitask—and get distracted—than those who are present in the lecture hall. “I do get a sense that the students who come to class seem to perform better, but I am not sure a direct causation can be drawn.” Butler provides some anecdotal evidence: “I once tried to skip a statistics class because the prof posted lecture notes online, but that was a disastrous idea,” she says. “I flunked two exams that way.”
Of course, attending class doesn’t eliminate the possibility that students will become distracted. Students have always written each other notes during class or read the Daily underneath their desks. But the wireless Internet access available in 80 percent of courses provides new opportunities. Spiro’s technology diary, for example, mentions a student talking on IM during one of his lecture classes. Most professors in classes with wireless access address the issue head-on. Alfano, for example, prohibits personal web surfing during class, but is thrilled when a student tracks down an article online that illustrates a point under discussion.
Overall, though, technology has not wrought the kinds of dramatic changes in the classroom that it has in students’ personal lives. “Professors have not caught up with how this new modality works,” says communication professor Clifford Nass. “That’s not to say they are not trying to rethink it—they are just not sure what to do. It takes a long time to figure out new ways to educate.” Nass, who is an expert on digital interfaces, rarely does more than project a webpage onto a screen, using his computer as a sort of glorified overhead projector. “We haven’t figured out the killer app for the classroom yet,” he says. Even if Nass and his contemporaries never do, you can bet one of their wired students will.
Christine Foster is a writer living in Mountain View.
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