Doors open to the virtual university

Students who showed up for the first day of school this month at Case Western Reserve University found, to their relief, that they were excused from at least one onerous rite of passage faced by generations before them: standing in long lines to register for classes. Instead, students were able to register for classes from the relative comfort of their dorm rooms using browser-equipped PCs and a new intranet to directly access Case's mainframe student information system.

Students who showed up for the first day of school this month at Case Western Reserve University found, to their relief, that they were excused from at least one onerous rite of passage faced by generations before them: standing in long lines to register for classes. Instead, students were able to register for classes from the relative comfort of their dorm rooms using browser-equipped PCs and a new intranet to directly access Case's mainframe student information system.

Class registration is just one of the applications available on Case's rapidly expanding network of intranets. More than 17,000 students and faculty and staff members at the Cleveland school can, using browsers and PIN numbers, download software and access course materials.

Case students aren't the only ones finding intranets playing an increasingly important role in the university experience this fall. A wide range of postsecondary institutions, from large public universities to smaller private schools, are moving more and more of their administrative, academic and even commercial activities to intranets. Many see the use of self-service intranet-based systems not only as a way to cut costs and deliver services faster but as a means to reach out more effectively to remote and nontraditional students.

But there's another reason the idea is taking off: Universities are finding that using intranets to deliver educational content and services can help attract top students, many of whom are already old hands at surfing the Internet. Accustomed to purchasing goods, interacting with others and sharing information online, these students expect to see the same functionality at school and may believe that more hands-on experience with Web technologies will help them shine after graduation. Experts say intranet-delivered education content won't replace direct contact with instructors. However, there's no doubt it's an increasing component of campus life because it's seen by many universities as a competitive tool.

"Harvard doesn't have to worry, but schools in the next tier down better get with it," said Raymond Neff, vice president of IS at Case. "The best students are going where the resources are. Schools who want to compete with the Ivy League are using technology to do it. We know that the more services we provide, the more distinguished we are because of the uniqueness we offer."

Already, many colleges and universities have latched on to intranets to deliver basic administrative services, and some are supporting e-commerce applications for tasks such as selling books. Michael Zastrocky, an analyst with Gartner Group Inc., in Broomfield, Colo., said 50 percent of universities and colleges now base their network activities around intranets or behind firewalls. Zastrocky said he expects that number to increase to 80 percent within three years.

"The intranet is becoming the place where more and more activity is taking place," he said. "When it comes to the Internet and intranets, higher education is leading-edge. The student comes to campus with higher expectations for the uses of such tools than an employee coming into a manufacturing firm."

Bullish on the Web

Even top-tier, prestigious schools are rapidly moving applications and content to intranets. Harvard Business School, for example, has built an $11 million intranet that uses firewalls and passwords to grant 75,000 students, faculty and staff members, and alumni access to applications such as online registration, Java-based polling, course materials and more than 400GB of video course content. According to Larry Bouthillier, head of multimedia services, Harvard Business School has found that using an intranet not only teaches students how to use, manage and deploy technology but also cuts costs and the time it takes to deliver administrative services.

"We aim to deliver value to the customer so that the customer always sees what they want," Bouthillier said. "At the same time, the intranet was also a great business strategy because time and money [are] saved when our end users can [gain] access to everything they need."

Harvard began building its intranet in 1995 with the idea of providing access to applications and content to all password-enabled users anytime, anywhere. The school's strategy for delivering on that goal: open standards. Dean Kim Clark decided that there would be no proprietary client/server software and that every application would be Web-based andbrowser-accessible. Within 14 weeks of the project's launch, the entire school had standard desktops and had moved to an open Internet-based e-mail system, enabling students to share files. The intranet runs on 60 Sun Micro systems Inc. E450 and E250 servers running the Solaris 2.6 and 2.5.1 network operating systems.

Since then, the school's intranet has grown to support several administrative and academic applications, including standard tasks such as online registration and degree status checking. Students can also use the intranet to access course materials; interact with other students in order to complete research projects; and even access thousands of hours of classroom video, streamed on demand to their workstations in one of the campus computer labs or to their own PCs. Logged on to the campus network, students can get video at speeds up to 1.5M bps. They can also dial in at modem speeds, accessing video using tools such as those from Seattle-based Real-Networks Inc.

One of the most useful and timesaving intranet applications, Harvard Business School instructors say, is a tool that allows students to poll fellow students for their analyses of specific case studies. Students use the poll results to put together management and return-on-investment analyses. This server-side Java-based polling application was developed in-house.

The online polling application saves IT time as well. Before it was available, professors had to ask IT to build Web forms to use in class. Today, those same educators build their own polls and even use the application to give exams.

The number of online applications at the school has blossomed as faculty members and students have found ways that IT never anticipated to use the intranet. In one case, Bouthillier said, a professor decided to integrate online polling and video by attaching a poll to each video clip he wanted to show his students. Students watched the videos at home, voted, then returned to class, where the professor presented and analyzed the results within a 2-hour span. In another case, a library employee connected the school's extensive corporation database to the school's job bank, enabling students looking up a company to click on a link and find out which alumni that company has hired in the past and at what positions.

A class-ic intranet example

Harvard Business School is an example of what can—and should—be done on a university intranet, Gartner Group's Zastrocky said.

"They have done very powerful things to show the value of technology on that campus," he said. "That is innovation because it's done as an intranet-based model but can be extended to someone off-campus. I see that model as the wave of the future that others will copy."

Harvard isn't the only university getting high marks for putting course content as well as administrative applications online. At Case, more than 400 liberal arts courses are offered online in some fashion. While some professors place their syllabuses online, others use the university's intranet to provide solutions to mathematics equations, assign reading material and hold office hours.

Speaking up

In some cases, educators say, moving instruction online can actually stimulate interaction between students. Because it is difficult to get some students to speak up in class, Case's Neff and his staff developed an electronic learning environment in which students meet over the intranet in an assigned chat room. Each student is required to write a statement and comment on his or her classmates' statements. When the application was first used in 1992, response was overwhelming, Neff said. Immediately, students became animated in the classroom, eager to bring the discussion into real time.

"Students are fairly uninhibited when it comes to communicating with one another over e-mail," he said. "That is the spontaneity you want to see in the classroom. This is a way to get that spontaneity to carry over into the classroom."

While administrative applications and course content are quickly being added to university intranets, Gartner Group's Zastrocky anticipates slower growth in e-commerce. Neff, for example, said it simply does not make sense for the university to launch its own online bookstore, given the cost of competing with an e-commerce giant such as Inc. Last year, the university farmed out its online bookstore to Barnes and Noble Inc.

More practical, Neff said, are efforts to use the intranet to provide broad access to limited university resources. Last year, Case's IT staff built an application that allows students to remotely operate a telescope that's situated 50 miles away. Students can essentially see through the telescope from their browsers.

"Many institutions are using the intranet to connect institutional people and materials together. The Internet becomes an avenue to gain access to resources or intellectual property," Zastrocky said.

Public universities, in particular, are using intranets to develop programs aimed at remote students. North Carolina State University, for example, lets students living all over the world work on their degrees using only the information on the school's intranet. More than 100 courses offered at the university are 100 percent online. The online courses make use of synchronous and asynchronous conferencing tools that allow people to either chat in real time or perform asynchronous conferencing or reasoning. More than 33,000 people have access to the school's intranet, which is secured with Secure Sockets Layer encryption provided by VeriSign Inc., of Mountain View, Calif.

"Public institutions need to provide access for a broader range of people who may not even have access to the campus," said Zastrocky, who added that he believes all institutions need to have intranets in place within the next three to four years.

But as useful as intranets are, Harvard's Bouthillier said online learning is no match for face-to-face interaction with a professor.

"When you have access to some of the greatest minds, why would you use a computer to communicate with them?" he asked. "An intranet cannot replace your classmates."

However, an intranet can keep you from having to stand in line with them.

Barely passing

Universities may be delivering more services via intranets, but many are not yet making the grade when it comes to integrating IT into overall missions. According to a 1998 survey, for example, fewer than half even had a strategic plan for information technology.

48% of institutions had a strategic plan for information technology

38% had a financial plan for informationtechnology

41% had a curriculum plan for IT

34% had an instructional plan for the Internet

30% had an IT plan for using the Internet indistance-learning initiatives

Source: The Campus Computing Project