College professors use the Net in a variety of ways. Some encourage students to use the Net for research and email, while others provide course information, assignments, and group discussions online. While a few university courses are conducted entirely over the Net, most still require some classroom attendance. For example, students in Robert Bee's online anthropology classes at the University of Connecticut in Storrs must attend discussion sections. "[Students] are not required to attend lectures, but I encourage them to come," says Bee. " I really believe the students' presence in the lectures is important."
In their off hours, some students also use online services as a cheaper means to communicate with friends and family. "It's much cheaper to pay $9.95 a month for a CompuServe account than to make four 10-minute phone calls," says Dave Farquhar, a student at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Net use has become so ubiquitous that some campuses are installing wireless links. Students at the University of California in Santa Cruz use Metricom's Ricochet technology to link to the Net via wireless modems. Ricochet uses low-power radio signals generated at various points across campus to connect to the modems. Both Oregon State University and Stanford University are looking into installing similar wireless networks to give students easier Net access.
Despite the media hype, most students use the Net for research purposes, says one Ohio State University student. "Netscape is a tool to me, not a television. I don't sit in front of it for hours browsing e-zines or downloading dirty pictures," says Eric Drake, a computer science major at OSU.
Recreational use of the Net is fine, as long as it's done in moderation, says Drake. "Many people are in the labs for hours on end having conversations with people that they will never meet, " he says, "The price of overindulgence is [the lack of] a social life and the ability to relate to humans."
But while recreational chat sessions may prevent some students from developing social skills, communicating online opens doors for others, especially those afflicted with shyness. For some, using the Net for classwork encourages them to meet face-to-face with students they might not otherwise interact with. "It makes me want to talk to people more because I have more information about what they're thinking," says Nadene Dolan, a junior at the State University of New York in Cobleskill. "You read their comments on the Internet and can come up to them and say, 'I read what you wrote.'"
One instructor at the Cobleskill campus echoes Dolan. Conducting class discussions online lets shier students express themselves more freely says Curtis Nehring Bliss, an English teacher. "They can say what they want to say in a less threatening environment," he says. Bliss teaches an online class called Slacker Stories, located at http://www.cobleskill.edu/faculty/blisscd/slacker/cor.htm.
According to Bliss, use of the Net on campus is profoundly affecting students. "They're much more plugged into the process of learning," he notes. In addition, the Net allows students to reach out to others more easily. "It lets them exchange ideas with people all over the world in a way that was impossible before. The Net is a tool that abolishes borders," says Bliss. "I see them crossing borders constantly."