Harvard Wired

The Economist,February 5, 1994

The idea of "information superhighways" may sound grand; indeed, it is meant to. But it needs no huge graders and bulldozers to build one. The origins can be utterly humdrum. In 1990 Harvard University installed fibre- optic cable to upgrade the campus telephones. The telephone company fitted every room with two telephone jacks, one for the telephone, the other for a computer modem. The university decided it was time to set up a network. Computer hubs were put into basements, linking fibre-optic trunk lines to the copper wires that serve the phone jacks. Copper cannot match the data capacity of a fibre; but the shorter a wire is, the less electrical resistance it has and the more information it can carry. In a house, copper can do a lot.

The network has achieved a size, speed and flexibility unimaginable just a few years ago. In ideal circumstances, it can transmit a 250-page book directly from a professor's office to a student's bedroom, or back the other way, in the time it takes to read this sentence. It gives users the ability to communicate electronically, search millions of pages of information at their desks, and benefit from new teaching aids such as multimedia textbooks or animated scientific models.

Some 500 first-year students are now testing the network's full potential. Soon the network will expand from the freshman dormitories to include every campus residence, linking 7,000 undergraduates. All a student will need is a personal computer (80% already have one) and a $ 150 "ethernet" card that fits inside the computer. The ethernet card is the driving licence for the information highway.

Several courses, especially in natural sciences and foreign languages, now offer interactive exercises. For example, biology students can follow the effects of "honey-bee dance behaviour" as they control the motion of the sun in a "virtual" sky. Students of French can connect to France's Minitel System. Classics students can search the digital textbook Perseus, a masterwork of multimedia technology that integrates the canon of ancient Greek literature with history and geography. They can switch easily from the text of Homer's Odyssey to the history of Sparta, or from maps of the Aegean to images of archaeological ruins.

The systems has so far cost $ 3.5m; new buildings can be wired up for $ 5,000- 10,000 a time. A staff of 15 professionals and 20 student volunteers handles questions and creates interactive tutorials. The unpaid help should keep costs down to an annual $ 2m in support and maintenance. Harvard is already planning expansion. In 1995 the professional schools such as Business and Medicine will be connected. Other universities are following suit. Carnegie- Mellon, Stanford and Dartmouth are all developing high-speed information highways.

Harvard hopes to keep the network as open and heterogeneous as possible, allowing students and faculty to use it as they see fit. There are plans to have books, films and music available electronically. Unfortunately, there are no systems in place to handle electronic copyright and duplication efficiently, which is why the classics faculty has an advantage: its subject matter is all in the public domain. Another problem is indexing. No standard for cataloguing digital information exists. Students and faculty spend a lot of time rummaging about at high speed not knowing the exact subject-heading of the information they want.

The faculty is not unanimous in its enthusiasm. Universities have been built around the idea of information flowing to students; the network allows it to flow between them and from them too, which brings worries. Every day, works are "posted" electronically, creating sources of new information unscreened by professors. From their desks, students can easily draw upon these materials for research, raising the possibility that minor inaccuracies or outright falsehoods will be propagated and linger. And e-mailing a professor is much less daunting than talking to one. Teachers are wading through screens of students' questions.

Harvard has no formal plans to share its experience of running an information highway with the world outside. Dean Knowles, head of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, claims that the contribution will be made by osmosis: students will graduate and take the know-how with them. And they will never be more than a few key strokes from those happy college days.

by David S. Bennahum