TCS Daily

The Ivy League's Missed Connections

By Dominic Basulto - November 17, 2004 12:00 AM

It is a commonly held assumption that the nation's best colleges and universities are also among the nation's most technologically-sophisticated colleges and universities. Thus, it was more than a bit of a shock when the Princeton Review survey of "America's Most Connected Campuses" in late October didn't include any of the usual suspects -- Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT or Stanford -- in the Top 25. Instead, the list of America's Top 10 "most connected" campuses included a number of surprising picks: Bryant University (#2), DePauw University (#3), Duquesne University (#7) and the Catholic University of America (#8).

Across the board, smaller, lesser-known academic institutions surpassed their larger, more prestigious brethren in terms of Internet connectivity. Tiny Bryant University in Rhode Island placed higher than state rival Brown University, Hofstra University outclassed city rival Columbia, Fairfield University embarrassed in-state rival Yale, Duquesne University outpolled Carnegie-Mellon and mighty Harvard couldn't even compete with the likes of the University of North Dakota. It is as if perennial college football powerhouses like USC, Oklahoma and Miami were obliterated in national Bowl games by tiny programs not even ranked during the regular season.

Apologists for the Ivy League may be inclined to sniffle about the "methodology" or blame lax administrators entrusted to fill out forms. Loyal alumni of previously overlooked colleges, no doubt, could bask in the glory of being ranked as among the "most connected" campuses in America. (When the story was posted on Slashdot, within 24 hours there were over 400 postings.) Is it really the case, though, that America's most prestigious academic institutions just "don't get it" -- that smaller, more nimble competitors are laying siege to the Ivory Towers of academia?

Certainly, the methodology of the survey leaves much to be desired -- and therein lies the problem. Is connectivity really the best way of measuring the technological sophistication of America's best colleges and universities? According to the information provided by the Princeton Review, the survey's methodology included the collection of quantitative data on only one factor (computer-to-student ratios) and the creation of numerical weights for 19 other questions that help to measure the "connectivity" of a campus. These questions could be answered with relatively simple yes or no responses: "Is there a wireless network on some portion of the campus? Does the school offer for-credit courses delivered online?" "Can students register for classes online?"

In other words, the Princeton Review survey of 357 American colleges considered the state of a university's IT infrastructure as a proxy for determining the technological sophistication of the campus. Little or no attention was paid to the relative academic performance of students, to the research or teaching capabilities of the faculty, or to broader efforts to integrate technology into non-technology courses. Moreover, since it is relatively easier to network a small-sized campus rather than a large-sized campus, the survey gave undergraduate institutions with smaller enrollments a clear advantage.

Without taking anything away from institutions like Bryant and DePauw -- institutions that are clearly doing an admirable job of bringing technology and connectivity to the everyday lives of students -- it is also clear that education administrators should be focusing on broader issues rather than just connectivity. This is the trap that America's educational establishments always fall into -- the errant belief that throwing more money at a problem will make it disappear. It is not always the case that more -- more computers, more access points and more online courses -- is better.

In a worst case scenario, universities could wind up with millions of dollars of fancy hardware sitting around, but with students with fewer technological opportunities than their peers at other "less connected" institutions. On Slashdot, more than one disgruntled alumnus pointed out all the reasons various institutions should never have been ranked in the Top 10, noting observations like "viruses are horribly rampant," and "wireless network coverage sucks." Not to be outdone, current students noted a dearth of courses in emerging areas like robotics and the nonexistence of online courses. Thus, even at schools ranked highly in the survey, there appears to be a fundamental disconnect between what administrators think and what students know.

Surveys that claim to reveal "America's Most Connected Campuses" can be useful, provided that users of this survey data understand the underlying methodology and the assumptions supporting this methodology. The "connectivity" of a campus is certainly a factor of the student-to-computer ratio and the ability of students to subscribe to online courses. However, what good are 1,000 computers sitting around a campus if students are just using these computers to download music files, swap dirty jokes and browse local bar listings? What good are online courses if students view them as an easy way to avoid the daily grind of early morning classes?

Institutions like Harvard, Yale and Stanford may be on the right track -- even if the Princeton Review chooses to snub them. These institutions recognize that the goal is not always more computers, more networks, and increasingly fancy tech gadgetry. The goal should be a technology-enhanced curriculum that enables students to graduate with real technological competency. Using this framework, it is quite likely that the results of the latest Princeton Review survey would have turned out quite differently.

The author writes frequently about technology and venture capital. He is a TCS contributor.


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