Comping Computerization

Harvard Enters the High-Tech Race

In recent years, a host of universities ranging from MIT to Stevens Tech in Hoboken, N.J. have jumped boldly into the computerization race, prompting Orwellian superstition and unrestrained hype over how technology could wipe out higher education as we know it. Harvard, in the meantime, remained quietly on the sidelines, playing the role of spectator in the high-tech race. That is, until now.

Nineteen-eighty five saw Harvard take its first carefully planned steps towards computerization, but the steps were anything but bold. With characteristic caution, the University, despite dipping its feet into the waters, has yet to take the big plunge. If anything, 1985 is the year of the rational, the skeptical and the realistic in the computer world.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of Harvard's modernization is simply that more than half the undergraduates now have a personal computer in their room, facilitating everything from book-quality theses to access to the Dow Jones Industrials. Moreover, faculty members have started to use new equipment and software to improve search capability and research technique.

Unlike other unviersities that have established programs to provide each student and faculty member with their own computer, Harvard has taken the laissez-faire approach, offering cut-rate deals and a host of options, but no mandatory purchasing plan. And the result, to the surprise of virtually no one, is that personal computers have appeared in places ranging from dorm rooms to the Classics Department.

But Harvard's policy, as it took shape this year, is certainly sober. In his 1985 annual report, President Bok issued a modest, moderate assessment of the effect of computers on education, and administrators, department heads and faculty members have relied on the "bottom-top" approach to computerization, only expanding upon demand, not as a policy.


The demand, however, has reached unprecedented heights. More than 2500 computers were sold through Harvard's Office of Information Technology at well below the market rate, supplying a personal computer, mostly Apple Macintoshes, to any student or faculty member who produced the cash. Administrators said they are optimistic after this year's results that students will not be required to purchase the machines, since so many demonstrated interest on their own.

In addition, Harvard expanded its mainframe, database computer system for upper-level problem solving and began the long-awaited process of connecting every major administrative office with equipment for inter-office transactions.

But perhaps the most outstanding advance in the equipment area was the implementation of an interdepartmental, cross-campus communications system, now extended between nine faculty buildings. Faculty committees are now investigating how to extend the link to all 6000 undergraduates in their suites and later to connect the College to the entire University, according to Dean of the Division of Applied Sciences Paul C. Martin '52.

The communications link will allow on-line mail, access to University records, archives, and library materials. In short, it will allow widespread access to anything that can be stored on computers, perhaps eliminating the need to travel and to work in areas where information is stored. One suggestion, for example, has been to place the University library's card catalogues on-line, which would allow users to conduct searches from their rooms or offices. Another long-range plan calls for entering reserve reading material to the system each semester. The system will also facilitate cable television, since the lines for communication are similar to the cable lines.

The cost is still formidable, with some estimates running as high as $20 million. But, Martin said, the technology to complete such a system is rapidly becoming less expensive, and the system could be completed within a few years.

Perhaps the most important issue in the computerization of Harvard, however, is not the equipment itself, but its effects on education.

At the Medical School, the New Pathway program, a pioneer project in medical education beginning this fall, is designed, among other things, to increase student-faculty contact, eliminate lecturing and concentrate on computer technology to simulate real-life medical situations.

Students in the program will rely on the machines to act as a "professor," feeding the information, testing the comprehension and supervising simulated experiments. But the machines also offer the opportunity to work on patients, whose body functions can be mimicked by the machines.

At the Business School, a campus-wide computer system of IBM PCs has been in place for more than a year. The system provides for basic communication needs including everything from computerized billboards to class schedules. And the school's curriculum, which focuses primarily on case study situations, relies on the machines to compute high-level business decisions that officials say would be immpossible without computers.

In the College, aside from the Computer Science Department which relies totally on computers, several fields have taken the initiative in utilizing new technology for teaching and research. This year, for example, the Classics and Economics Departments have made efforts to computerize some of their operations.

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