By Heather Herzog
Computer and Information Systems
Academic programs for first-year students are increasingly emphasizing computer skills -- and this trend is expected to expand significantly in the next few years, according to faculty members.
Many instructors have begun adapting courses taken by first-year students into learning environments that teach information technology skills. Faculty members also are relying on programs like the Student Computing Initiative (Penn State's recent recommendation that every full-time student have a personal computer) to get the word out to freshmen and potential students that computers are an essential part of college life.
"Everyone assumes that students are natural computer users and are more advanced than the faculty," said R. Thomas Berner, professor of journalism and American studies, "but my experience suggests that while students know where the on/off switch is and can type a paper and send e-mail, they see the computer as little more than a glorified typewriter that can send messages."
Over the 25 years he spent teaching journalism courses at University Park, Berner came to believe that the ability to use electronic research tools such as Lexis-Nexis and the Library Information Access System (LIAS) could spell success or failure for many students. Lexis-Nexis is a company with products/services that provide access to a wide range of news, business, legal and reference information. The service allows users to search newspapers back 20 years, company financial data, federal and state case law, medical journals, famous quotations and the world almanac, among many other resources.
This spring, Berner's honors COMM 261 class made frequent use of digital research tools and interacted with one another electronically several times a week using a Web-based technology called CourseTalk. Berner plans to incorporate CourseTalk in three first-year seminars he will teach next fall, by using the software to stimulate Web-based discussion of articles available online from The New York Times. At the end of the semester, he'll expect the first-year students to know how to successfully retrieve and download research materials, have a good understanding of software like Word, Excel and FrontPage, and be able to create PowerPoint presentations.
Berner is not alone in his campaign to strengthen freshmen technology skills. This April, 213 faculty, staff and students attended and/or gave presentations at Penn State's Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium (a number up 33 percent from last year). Many of these participants teach the First-Year Seminar or freshmen courses throughout the University's 24 campus system.
"Faculty members are hungry for knowledge they can use to help their students use technology," said John Harwood, director of the Center for Academic Computing's Educational Technology Services. "There is a growing understanding that the immense spectrum of research and instructional opportunities available today can only be accessible to students if they know how to use computers."
"These are skills that will take young people through college -- and life," said Helen Hartman, a First-Year Seminar instructor in kinesiology at Penn State Berks-Lehigh Valley. Hartman, who uses the Appalachian Trail as a metaphor in her classes to teach students how to "embark on a process, work through it, then finish it," believes that students need to learn to benefit from interaction with one another and technology.
"I ask my students, what does it take to journey a 2,160-mile path, packing everything you need on your back, and what kind of tools and skills will you need to begin a four-year study program that will lead to a college degree you'll want to use the rest of your life?"
Following her online instructions, first-year students in Hartman's seminar last fall and this spring worked in groups to collect and evaluate information about the Appalachian Trail by using the Internet and LIAS. They also collaborated to master the use of e-mail, electronic references, Web-journals and, in some cases, HTML in order to present final projects via the Web.
Higher education trends echo the rising demand for technology-savvy students. At Penn State last year, more than 10,229 students, faculty and staff enrolled in computer training classes; 97 percent of all students currently use Internet access accounts; and 86 percent of students own their own computers.
"That figure should climb to 100 percent in the next couple of years," said Harwood, who also chairs the Student Computing Initiative Committee. "Penn State now provides free Internet access, free Microsoft software, and free computer training and consulting services in order to make acquiring and using a computer easy for incoming students."
The University is additionally in the process of sending out to newly admitted students information packets that provide advice on how to purchase a computer, receive financial aid, identify college system requirements and obtain repair services, he said.
On a national scale, information technology spending by colleges and universities is expected to increase from $3.1 billion in 1998 to nearly
$5 billion by 2003, in an effort to attract students and stay current in computer technology, according to a recent report by International Data Corp.
Upper-level students agree that incoming students are more likely to do well in college if they're technologically prepared. In a survey recently conducted by the Center for Academic Computing, more than 75 percent of all students questioned rated the significance of computers to academic work and post-graduate careers as either "very important" or "extremely important." In addition, Penn State recently doubled its server capacity in response to student demand for Web-based services such as online academic counseling, course information and scheduling; and in the last six months, LIAS on the Web increased its databases and resources almost 25 percent, due to the high volume of patron requests for online library materials.
For more information, visit the Student Computing Initiative Web site at http://www.psu.edu/studentcomputing/.
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