Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Off to College

Last week, I had the pleasure of dropping off a great person at his college. While I'm not his father, I've known him for six years and he's entering his junior year at Cornell.

This is his first year not living in a dorm. This year, he has an off-campus apartment with a roommate.

All of my parents worked at colleges or universities, so I grew up in the higher education culture. However, it's been more than a couple of decades since I graduated. And as it's been many years since I had any significant college connections, it was interesting to see how the college crowd lives nowadays and how their technology needs have changed.

I wasn't disappointed.

While I won't bore you with how it was in the "olden days," I will offer some observations of how things are done now.

First, not a chance anyone will have a land-line telephone: Mobile phones are the only way to go. Typically, students keep the phone number they received sometime in K-12. And since most mobile phone plans now include long distance, it doesn't matter what phone number you have, since it won't cost you anything extra to call long distance.

Second, Internet access is key. Even above cable TV, Internet rules. The $50/month is considered a necessary utility. If people in the same apartment can share a single Internet connection, they're all for that. There was much talk of positioning WiFi routers so that friends a couple of floors up could get a good signal. The possibility of stringing a wire into someone else's apartment to deliver Internet service was also a common discussion.

Third, televisions were nice, but not necessary. While there are certainly students with televisions, they're hardly the necessity that they once were. This is because virtually any television show or movie can be watched over the Internet. With computer monitors being upwards of 19-inches, the size of a computer monitor rivals that of a college dorm or apartment TV anyway.

Fourth, textbooks: These are going online, too. Rather than paying $100-plus for a textbook and then turning it back into the bookstore at the end of the semester for pennies on the dollar, many textbooks are being made available digitally, often times "rented" for the duration of the class. We'll see more of this as the book publishers, teachers, schools and students figure out how curriculums become more digital.

Fifth, student communications: E-mail is dead. Even making phone calls isn't as popular. Students communicate more and more with SMS texting, instant messaging and through sites such as Facebook. Have a club on campus that you want to let people know about? Set up a Facebook site and let people become "fans."

Sixth, music: OK, there is one area where I will talk about how it was in the "olden days" - stereos. These used to have a prominent location in any college dorm or apartment. Not so nowadays. Don't get me wrong, music is very important to college students, but with their MP3 players, iTunes and other sources of music, having the large stereo system just doesn't make sense anymore. Even most radio stations stream their broadcasts, so if you want to listen to NPR or the local country station, you can listen to the broadcast from your personal computer.

It was great to go back to college for a day and see how much things have changed as well as how they've stayed the same.

I don't know whether it's helped prepare me for when my 11-year-old daughter goes to college in a few years or scared me.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 26 August 2009.
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