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Whether it's ordering supplies, paying bills, or selling merchandise, many IHEs are embracing web-based, e-commerce as a fast, efficient, and economical means to conduct business.

Web infrastructure has become a many-tentacled monster on campus, and the feed and upkeep of this once-quaint pet has taken over budgets, departments, and agendas across the university. But there's no checking the growth of this amazing animal because what was a sideshow 10 years ago is now an integral part of the main attraction.

Never doubt the importance of good surveillance technology. Take, for example, the case of a missing former University of Wisconsin-Madison student, which occurred last spring. Police searched for Audrey Seiler and after finding her in a marsh, went on the hunt for a "bad man" Seiler accused of abducting her from her campus apartment and holding her captive. Several hundred volunteers joined the effort and a national media blitz followed.

Francesca Karpel, a mother of twins, sent her son to Case Western University (Ohio) and her daughter to Trinity University (Texas) last fall. While neither university is a short jaunt from her Belmont, Calif., home, she feels closer to Trinity. Part of the reason for this is Parent Talk, Trinity's parent-only listserv, of which she is an active member.

Developed four years ago and boasting about 600 subscribers, Parent Talk hosts discussions on a variety of topics--from meal plans and alcohol abuse to finding a reliable mechanic to ordering birthday cake. "I've found Parent Talk a very helpful way to feel connected to Trinity and to learn more about Texas," Karpel says. "It has helped me to let go, feel reassurance about the student body, and laugh--as I've read the perspective of more experienced parents," she says.

The Trinity listserv was created to foster better parent relations with the university. "Parents had been complaining that the only time they heard from us was when it was time to pay the bills," says David Tuttle, Trinity's dean of students and director of Residential Life. "The listserv is a very personal way for us to interact with parents and for them to interact with each other." Tuttle not only moderates the listserv, but also responds to inquiries and discussions, and sends out weekly updates which are often injected with funny anecdotes as well as real insight into student life from an administrator's perspective.

"You never know
what's going to fly
with parents
and what's not
until they bring it up
on the listserv."
-David Tuttle,
Trinity University

Parent Talk also attracts many onlookers, known in the Trinity cyber-community as "lurkers." One lurker, Andrea Shelton, is a Trinity grad whose eldest son does not attend Trinity. His school does not offer a parent listserv. "I felt very disconnected to what my son was going through. That's when I turned to TU," she says. Shelton had even gone to the school's administration and made her case for a parent listserv. She received little feedback. "I am very disappointed and frustrated with this aspect of my son's college. There's so much camaraderie on the TU listserve. I am envious," she says.

But as in any open forum, there are bound to be conflicts of opinion. While parents tend to get grouped together as a "homogenous contingent," Tuttle says, they in fact have very different mindsets. He learned this when The Vagina Monologues were being shown on campus. Some parents wrote in that they "expected more out of Trinity than to let this happen. Others wrote, "This is exactly what I expect from Trinity--to expose my child to such things." "You never know what's going to fly with parents and what's not until they bring it up on the listserv," Tuttle says.

But listservs are just one of the many tools that IHE's are using to create good will among parents and encourage their participation. At the University of New Hampshire, parents can sign up to receive a monthly e-mail from their child's hall director detailing campus events and floor programs, and suggesting timely topics to discuss with their kids. "Parents really appreciate the individual attention," says Shannon Marthouse, assistant director of Residential Life at UNH. "It gives them peace of mind to know they have a name and an e-mail address if they have questions or concerns." Currently, more than 2,900 parents have signed up to receive the monthly e-mail. Only a handful of parents request information via snail mail. UNH, however, is heading towards a purely technological approach, she says.

Before the monthly e-mails, Marthouse describes parents' behavior as very reactive. "They had to go through a lot to track us down if they had a problem. We decided that we wanted to be more proactive," she says. To increase parent communication, Marthouse and her staff wrote to the parent association and requested a $6,000 grant (which they received) in March 2002 to increase outreach to parents.

The University of Southern California is another institution that welcomes collaboration with parents. The university prides itself on its parent website, which can be accessed from a simple click of the parents icon off the homepage. "We felt it was important to offer a tool that responds to parent needs, especially now that they are much more involved in their child's decision-making process," says Beth Saul, director of parent programs for USC.

In fact, it has become a rarity for an institution not to have a parent site, says Jim Boyle, president of College Parents of America, a Virginia-based advocacy group. "It is going to have to become standard operating procedure because this coming generation of parents is very used to utilizing the web for communication," he says.

"Often parents
don't get involved
until it's too late,
and that's when they
become overbearing
and overinvolved."
-Tracy Howe,
GoalQuest

USC's "Ask a Question" section is a good example of the university's innovative web programming. Parents can pose all sorts of questions and then submit them electronically. Typically, they will get a response within a few hours. Saul says questions range from light to serious. Anything from "Where's the local dry cleaner?" to "I haven't heard from my son or daughter in a few days. Can you help me locate them?" is fair game.

Between the Q & A (also offered on the site) and the Ask a Question feature, Saul believes parents have access to all the information they need. A parent listserv, she says, could be problematic. "Parents don't know exactly how a university operates. There's the concern that they might give incorrect information to other parents," Saul says. Instead, they have a 30-member parents council, whom parents can freely contact.

The University of Vermont, though similar to others in its use of technology to aid outreach, reaches parents on many different levels. Using Parent Connection software developed by GoalQuest, a company specializing in web-based communication tools, UVM is strengthening parent relations while encouraging participation in the university's fundraising campaign. Parents are e-mailed periodically and directed to the site hosted by GoalQuest where they can read about "Supporting Your Student from Home" or "Building the Ultimate Care Package." One of the sessions with the highest readership is called "How do you get along with your son or daughter when they come back home?" says Alan Ryea, director of UVM's alumni and parent programs.

"The goal is to arm parents with smart and relevant things to say to their son or daughter. It's a service approach," says Tracy Howe, co-founder of GoalQuest. "We understand the needs of parents--from the anxieties that freshmen parents face to the concerns over job prospects that parents of graduating seniors face."

Parent Connection especially seeks to quell the concerns of "helicopter" parents, those who hover over their children. "We give parents the resources they need to confront problems before they become crises. Often parents don't get involved until it's too late, and that's when they become overbearing and overinvolved," Howe says.

"Parents don't know
exactly how
a university operates.
There's the concern
that they might give
incorrect information
to other parents."
-Beth Saul,
USC

But there is also a solicitation element to the site. Parents can click on a link directing them to the institution's advancement site. This tactic has proven successful. Donor participation rates among parents was 28.9 percent last year, but it is now up to 37.4 percent (among parents who read at least 50 percent of the Parent Connection sessions). For parents who read less than 50 percent of the sessions, their participation rate is 31.9 percent. "We're not using this merely as a solicitation vehicle," Ryea says. "But we are interested in seeing a return on investment."

However, some institutions believe that money should be raised in the development office only. "It's a conflict of interest," says Rodney Johnson, director of parent services at George Washington University (D.C.). "If you were a parent who just asked for more scholarship money and then you got an e-mail asking for money, you are not going to be happy," he says. Instead, Johnson says parent programs should be purely service-oriented. "If you do good communication and offer good services to parents, they will give eventually. But which do you do first? Make sure their students are happy and successful or ask them for money?"

This leads to the question: What department should handle parent programs? Parent relations is often scattered among different departments, everywhere from Residential Life to Student Affairs to the Development Office. "I see it migrating more towards Student Affairs," says Boyle of College Parents of America. "Yes, parents are a major player in advancement. But they are also very important in recruitment and retention." Parents play a critical role in choosing a college, and if they're not satisfied, they'll easily pull their children out.

Many believe that parents are an important constituency that perhaps in the past has gone undervalued. Johnson, of GW, says the university recognized this 13 years ago when it was one of the first schools to create an Office of Parents.

"We realize that the baby boomer parents are helicopter parents. They're the soccer moms and dads; they had the 'Child on Board' stickers," he says. "But even though they hover, dive in, and hover some more, they are wonderful parents. They just expect more interaction and services."

Professor Steve Jones admits being concerned that his students were paying more attention to their computers and to each other than to his teaching. He needn't have worried.

Jones, professor and head of communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago and a senior research fellow on the Pew Internet & American Life Project, is teaching a course this semester simultaneously to students at the University of Illinois' Chicago and Urbana-Champaign campuses. With an Apple iBook laptop computer on each end using Apple's $129 iSight camera and microphone, Jones is able to tie together the two classrooms in real time.

An unexpected development was that students began bringing their laptops to class and having conversations during the lesson with each other--between the two sites. "I started to feel they weren't paying attention in class," remembers Jones. "But I talked to a couple students and found out that what they were doing was class-related. They were asking questions and pointing things out. They couldn't get enough conversation in verbally."

Even on the same campus, users may have different specific computer needs. A botany student may want a handheld device that has add-on components to take samples while in the field. A history student may use video and audio instant messaging to interact with researchers or research primary sources on another continent. Music instructors may be looking for software applications to help them compose new works.

Despite those differences, there are some very clear trends in computer use on campuses large and small, religious and secular, upper- and middle-class: Mobile computers such as personal digital assistants (PDAs), cell phones, laptops, and tablets are taking over as school staff and students use them to create mobile lifestyles. In particular, students are exploiting the technology to work, research, and entertain themselves nearly anywhere on campus at any time.

A related trend across all campuses is that schools are looking for ways to use their students' access to the technology to increase students' interaction with their coursework. That often means communication with students via wireless connections or wired links to give them course plans, research material, online "laboratories" for conducting classes or discussions, or even delivering entire classes and testing to the student online.

Institutions are working hard to keep up with their students' needs by upgrading their infrastructure (usually by installing high-speed communications technology throughout the academic buildings, the residence halls, and common areas, and by increasing the number and the power of servers on campus). Vendors such as Dell Computer, Gateway, IBM, and Microsoft offer software or hardware packages to colleges and universities, and in some cases make grants of technologies for specific programs.

Institutions are also boosting their help desk staff available to offer technical support to the student population, usually through a mix of paid staff and student volunteers. Though some schools try to offer as much support as students and faculty need, others limit their support to technology that meets specific school parameters and then direct the students to the manufacturers for help with unsupported hardware and software.

The College of New Rochelle (N.Y.) is implementing a comprehensive strategic plan. As a part of that, incoming freshmen to two of its schools are being given laptop computers. It also is renovating its computer labs and technology classrooms, making each classroom a potential wireless workplace for students. In fact, wireless access has been expanded to almost all academic and public areas on the campus. Plus, more than 1,500 students and faculty use a web-based course management system.

New Rochelle's students are using "technology as a tool for communication and collaboration," says Emory Craig, the college's director of academic computing. "This fact, along with the increasing miniaturization of the devices, is making technology personal and portable, and more embedded in everyday life. Students come to us with an expanding array of communication devices and the expectation that they will be able to use them."

The University of Miami (Fla.), which recently inked a deal with Dell Computer to streamline its technology purchases, reports that 95 percent of its outdoor areas and 60 percent of its campus buildings are enabled for wireless computing. The school offers free wireless accounts to its students, 4,000 of whom have taken advantage of it so far.

With the rise of laptops, tablets,
and PDAs, desktops may soon be a
thing of the past on campuses.

Through the Pew Internet project, Jones has been researching students' use of technology and the internet since 1999. During that time, he has seen students use the internet and their computers to increase the number of people--faculty, other students, and people peripherally connected to a class--with whom they interact. For example, students sign up for e-mail-based discussion groups, even those not run or assigned by the teacher. Three-quarters also said they were going to the library less and were doing more research online. While Jones laments the loss of the social interaction from less library time, new patterns are emerging in which computer labs are becoming a drop-in center for students, even if they have their own computers and internet connections.

"We thought that with so many students using their own computers, the use of computer labs would decline," says Brian Rust, communications manager for the University of Wisconsin, Madison's division for information technology. But at a school in which almost all incoming freshman already own a computer (see sidebar), computer lab use remained steady and even increased at a couple sites. "They consider it a place to check their e-mail and manage documents. That way, they can leave their computers in their homes."

That wasn't the case at Loyola University (Ill.), where declining use of the computer labs has allowed the school to begin eliminating lab seats and reclaiming that space for other purposes, according to Daniel Vonder Heide, director of information services.

Schools are finding similar trends, especially in the student preference for laptop computers. About half of the students at UW-Madison have laptops. Colorado University-Boulder has found that a majority of its students preferred to purchase laptops instead of desktops.

Desktops are still found in many students' rooms, but they may soon be "a thing of the past on campuses, especially for commuter or nontraditional students," says Michael Schmedlen, a regional manager in IBM's education division. He says students "are really nomadic" in the way they go about their campus lives, and they are able to do that because of the long-lasting batteries in today's laptops and tablets, which can be used throughout a day's worth of classes without recharging. The near-ubiquity of wireless access on campuses is another factor in these portable computers' popularity. Tablet computers hold one very important edge over laptops for some students: improved handwriting recognition software makes them the favored choice over laptops for students who prefer to write their notes instead of type them.

University of California, Los Angeles junior Tony Pallatto, the owner of a vintage 1999 Apple G5 desktop, agrees that laptops are more popular than desktops and that laptop speeds are a good match for the internet, word processing, and other uses popular with students.

"It's really helpful if you have a presentation in class. A lot of times students will use their laptops to enhance their presentations with PowerPoint and graphical presentations, creative stuff," Pallatto says.

Vonder Heide notes that he's also seeing more laptops than tablets on his campus. And with PDAs that combine the functions of small handheld computers with telephones, he says cell phones are dropping out of favor.

By January, Coppin State University (Md.) plans to add 12 more classrooms to the 25 it has already converted into "smart classrooms." These rooms have ceiling-based projectors, wireless connections, DVDs, VDRs, and CD players--"all the things teachers can use to enrich their presentations with multimedia," says Ahmed El-Haggan, vice president of information technology.

As part of its ongoing strategic plan, New Rochelle is making all classrooms wireless-ready, so students and teachers can access the internet--and each other--during lessons.

UW-Madison has not gone all-out in the classroom conversion craze. Most classrooms have not been made wireless-friendly. "Some faculty prefer we don't have another distraction during classes," says Rust. But a handful of classrooms and lecture halls have been wireless enabled, mostly to be at the disposal of the lecturer. Instead, the UW's wireless transmission points have been installed in the libraries, the student unions, and other common areas.

Some teachers may even be ahead of their students in their integration of technology into the classroom. Pallatto recalls an algebra teacher who used Microsoft's presentation software, PowerPoint, to create about 90 percent of his lessons. "He walked you through all of the problems, and he had sound effects for all of the steps," remembers Pallatto, a Japanese major, who adds, "He was kind of eccentric."

For those schools taking a go-slow approach on creating smart classrooms, the opinions and experiences of faculty and staff could have the decisive weight. "I'm simply happy that students are engaged with one another in learning," says Jones, recalling his students interacting with each other during class. "Whether or not we know yet whether the learning outcome is better or worse--and I don't think we do--I'm more than willing to try this for a while until we know."

John Burton is UB's San Francisco-based contributing writer.

With health care insurance inflation in the double digits for the third year across all sectors of the American population, colleges and universities across the United States continue to think about how to best provide insurance for their students.

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