Big tech on campus

College students are serving as guinea pigs for the digital lifestyle--but is tech marketing in schools getting out of control?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read
College students are getting a crash course in the "digital lifestyle," as schools expand and introduce high-tech perks such as campuswide wireless Internet access, subsidized legal music download services and even free iPods.

The success of school-backed technology initiatives is critical for providers of digital lifestyle equipment and services, which test early-adoption patterns and scramble for mindshare among tech-heavy spenders. But there's a fine line between giving students access to cutting-edge technology and making them marketing guinea pigs, some critics warn.


What's new:
Colleges are expanding and introducing high-tech perks such as wireless Internet access, subsidized legal music download services and free iPods.

Bottom line:
Critics warn that students may be acting as marketing guinea pigs for providers of digital lifestyle gear and services.

More stories on this topic

"I'm in favor of giving students access to tools that enhance their education and expose them to technologies they may encounter in the workplace," said Thomas Skill, the associate provost and chief information officer at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "But we have to stay focused on the learning outcomes."

It's no secret that college campuses are hotbeds of technology innovation, so it shouldn't be surprising that universities are among the first to try out new gadgets and applications. Many of these have direct educational benefits--for example, high-speed wireless video offers students the chance to watch a lecture that they couldn't attend in person.

But campuses are also beginning to resemble consumer technology marketing labs, with school-backed programs pushing gadgets and services that may have only a tenuous connection to the classroom.

Would you like a free gift with that?
Duke University has given 1,650 freshman new iPods from Apple Computer for free. The devices, which typically cost more than $250 in stores, come complete with the school's crest and the words "Class of 2008" engraved on them, as well as preloaded "welcome" messages from school officials.

The pilot program is costing the university about $500,000, including the cost of the discounted iPods, salaries of academic computing specialists and grants to participating professors. It was funded with money set aside for a one-time innovative technology purpose.

Duke officials said they hope the iPods, which are known for playing digital music, will enhance the teaching of language lessons, audio books and class lectures.

Others said the giveaways may have more to do with helping schools compete for students in an increasingly competitive educational market and that they raise serious questions about school budget priorities.

"The people in admissions want to leverage whatever they can to enhance the school's appeal to prospective students," Skill said. "And that often translates into who can give away the most toys and gadgets. But we really have to be careful in how we justify the added cost when we continually raise tuition and fees."

iPods aren't the only technology trend schools are buying into. Several universities subsidize or pay for legal music download services such as Napster, Cdigix, RealNetworks' Rhapsody and Ruckus Network. Pennsylvania State University got the ball rolling earlier this year, when it launched a pilot program that offered Napster 2.0 to a select number of students for free. Penn State's offer has since been expanded to all students, and other schools are following suit.

Campus authorities say they are partnering with these companies to stymie illegal downloading over peer-to-peer networks. Universities have been targets of several lawsuits launched by the Recording Industry Association of America.

The RIAA has said that so far, its legal efforts, combined with these partnerships, has helped reduce illegal file sharing on college networks.

Distance learning
iPod giveaways and subsidized music subscriptions may well turn out to be a short-lived fad. But other campus technology initiatives that could revolutionize the concept of the lecture hall are gathering steam.

Many universities have launched distance-learning programs so that students can access lectures, class materials and labs from anywhere on campus at any time. Five days a week, students and faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology interact with colleagues at two universities in Singapore via the Internet2 backbone. Students at the Manhattan School of Music conservatory get lessons via the Internet from musicians around the world.

MIT has used part of a $25 million grant from Microsoft to help build a remote-laboratory program over the Internet, which it calls iLab. Using a standard Web browser, students can access laboratory facilities at any time of day. Experiments range from manipulating electrical circuitry on a microprocessor chip to simulating an earthquake on a $50,000 "shake table" to see how well the structure holds up.

"Doing experiments is a key part of the learning process," said Jesus del Alamo, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT. "But before iLabs, we were never able to do these kinds of experiments with our graduate students, let alone our undergraduates, because it was too expensive."

The mobile student
An equally significant development on campus is taking place in the realm of wireless networking, where some schools are beginning to offer students and faculty ubiquitous campus broadband via 802.11 wireless technology, known as Wi-Fi.

These networks promise a seamless connection for students and faculty to classrooms, research and other educational resources at anytime, anywhere. They also have a fringe benefit for companies hawking digital lifestyle products, as they help sell the concept of uninterrupted mobile computing with visceral force. Many people will likely have their first experience of what it means to have continuous, high-speed, wireless Internet access on campus.

"When you have the network at your fingertips, it really changes your life," said Brad Noblet, director of technical services at Dartmouth College. "I get frustrated when I leave Hanover and I can't have ubiquitous wireless access."

More than 90 percent of campuses in the United States have some form of wireless networking, according to the Campus Computing Project, which conducts an annual study of information technology in higher education.

The technology is changing the way students live, learn and play, Noblet said, borrowing a phrase from Cisco Systems' marketing-savvy top executive, John Chambers. Dartmouth has been a pioneer in wireless networking, with 100 percent wireless coverage for its square-mile campus.

With up to 600 wireless access points installed throughout the campus, students can access the Wi-Fi network while studying in their dorm rooms, hanging out on the Green--or even riding the school's ski lift up the mountain or canoeing down the Connecticut River.

"If we only put it in one or two places, we thought we would have frustrated the hell out of everyone," Noblet said. "So we decided to go with it everywhere."

And Dartmouth isn't the only college that has gone wireless. More than 45 percent of campuses reported strategic plans for introducing or upgrading wireless networks in the fall of 2003--up from 34.7 percent in 2002 and 24.3 percent in 2001, according to the Campus Computing Project study. All of this growth comes despite more than 40 percent of universities reporting budget cuts in 2003. Networks are so commonplace now that students simply expect them.

"Once you start using wireless, you can't go back," said Harel Williams, a senior this fall at MIT. "I think people just assume it's going to be there now."

Today, most colleges are looking toward replacing older and slower 802.11a and 802.11b technologies with newer, faster standards, such as 802.11g. There are also emerging standards like 802.11n, which promises to boost throughput from 54 megabits per second to more than 100mbps and which could be helpful as universities start streaming video over wireless connections.

Just like large companies, colleges and universities are consolidating their voice, video and data traffic over a single Internet Protocol (IP) network in efforts to save costs. Dartmouth is already taking advantage of its converged IP backbone to offer students soft clients that turn their laptops into phones. By the end of 2005, it will also offer television programming over its IP network, Noblet said.

Darker side of technology
Even as Wi-Fi gains in popularity, some downsides are becoming apparent.

Security has become a top concern for universities and colleges with Wi-Fi networks, typically among those with open network access policies.

The biggest problem is simply ensuring that laptops and computers attached to the network are "clean." Students and faculty often pick up worms and viruses while off the network. When they return, they spread them throughout the university. In addition, peer-to-peer applications can create security problems, since spyware and viruses can unknowingly be downloaded over such networks.

Universities are big customers of security measures such as antivirus, antispam, and intrusion detection and prevention products. They've also improved user authentication to ensure that laptops are "scrubbed" clean before they gain access to the network.

Schools such as the University of Dayton require students to buy notebook computers from them. These notebooks are preloaded with security software that can be regularly updated through the network. Skill said this has significantly cut down on security problems.

Dartmouth, meanwhile, is using public key infrastructure to create secure communities. Students and faculty must use digital certificates and physically insert a key before they can access the network.

"We spend a large portion of our time cleaning up dirty laptops and PCs either for faculty or students," Noblet said. "We want to keep the network very open, but it's very difficult to lock down the population to protect the network."