The Harvard of Networks

Wired 2.05, May 1994

A special free offer: a 10-megabit-per-second Internet connection giving you the ability to send a 250-page book in a few seconds and access to 6.5 million volumes in the local library (so you can find out instantly if what you want is checked out), 70 common programs (such as Microsoft Word, PageMaker, and Paradox), and a tweaked version of Mosaic (the point-and-click Net search tool developed by the European Laboratory for Particle Physics that allows you to gopher, ftp, and search databases filled with hypermedia links with as much ease as opening a folder on your Macintosh). To top it off, you're given the opportunity to e-mail questions to Nobel laureates living next door and get answers by the next day. Sound good? There's one catch: You have to plunk down US$25,000 to go to Harvard University, assuming they'll let you in.

Welcome to the Harvard Network.

Two years and $3.5 million in the making, the Harvard Network now connects 500 first-year students directly from their dorm rooms to faculty offices, to all of Harvard's research libraries (the largest in academia), and to the Net. By spring 1994, 7,000 undergraduates will have data jacks next to their phone jacks - all linked by fiber-optic cable. In 1995, the graduate schools will be hooked up, creating a fiber village of 12,000 users.

Already, instructors are taking advantage of the network to distribute interactive digital textbooks filled with hypermedia links. The biology department is working on interactive programs so students can see the consequences of their actions, using the kind of feedback that made SimCity such a big hit. Language departments are creating interactive discussion modules to replace practicing with one-way analog tapes. Meanwhile, the faculty is experiencing an explosion of electronic mail from students. (One benefit/consequence of getting wired is the ability to ask - and be asked - more questions than usual.)

How all this will affect the way students learn and professors teach is anyone's guess. Digital information is easy to post and easy to access; some faculty members are concerned that students will rely on dubious information, passing it on to others in an intellectual version of the computer virus. Others are nervous that without standard indexing systems, valuable information will be lost. Still, Harvard has the hottest network around. If you want to check it out, dial +1 (617) 495 1000 and ask for an application form. Good luck!

by David S. Bennahum