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News feature: Web surfing 101

US education grabs the web with both hands

The internet is changing the face of education and if you don't believe it take a visit to the University of California at Los Angeles, arguably one of the most wired-up universities in the world.

In the splendour of the Southern California cathedral of higher education many age-old scholastic tools are undergoing unprecedented change thanks to innovation in internet technology.

Its libraries are replacing books with computer screens, its classrooms are getting virtual windows on the web.

But most notably in flux here is the art of classroom doodling.

Mental pictures

Doodling has come to be a sociological phenomenon in education, known to help students hone their concentration during monotonous lectures from balding professors by sketching on reams of note paper, effectively stimulating the brain.

Though the scientific evidence may not be available to prove it, filling the margins of notebooks with pencil sketches while simultaneously taking in a lecture on Roman civilisation is equivalent to engaging both the right and left lobes of the brain in an intense aerobic workout.

At UCLA doodling is undergoing a process of evolution thanks to a campus-wide push to bring the web to classrooms. In the process, it is providing an even greater exercise for daydreamers and the easily preoccupied.

Beginning with a major push in the 1990s, classrooms, libraries and even dormitory rooms at UCLA were hardwired for internet access. A seven-building complex built in 1995 that is home to UCLA's acclaimed Anderson School of Business was built from the ground up with a high-speed network distributed to every desk in every classroom. A recently implemented policy also requires many UCLA students to carry a laptop computer to class.

Dana Peterson, a third-year Juris Doctorate candidate studying law at UCLA, said that this focus on the internet at UCLA has done immeasurable good for her education, beyond anything doodling could have achieved.

She tells me that, with in-class internet access, she no longer dozes off during boring lectures. Instead, she sends emails or scans headlines on CNN. Her colleagues have enjoyed similar scholastic success chatting with friends using instant messenger software.

Home page

There are other benefits to attending such a wired school, notes Jeff Cole, director of UCLA's Center for Communication Policy, who has embarked on a multi-year study to measure the social effects of the internet.

Upon being accepted to UCLA, each student receives his or her own personalised web portal to manage course calendars, receive grades, view online course material and gain access to student services like financial aid, he said. Of course, the untold benefit is that it leaves plenty more time for drinking beer with the co-eds.

MBA students at the Anderson school also receive an email address that they can keep for life. Offering an unchanging point of contact for students to keep in touch with their teachers and peers, it also comes in handy in the 'new economy'. Many of these MBA graduates find that working for hi-tech companies provides little security for an email address, as mail servers are one of the first assets to be liquidated during bankruptcy.

Following the path set by early adopters such as UCLA, schools of all levels around the world are wiring their classrooms and outfitting students with portable computers, hoping to achieve similar gains for their student body.

According to a study on the internet conducted by UCLA's Center for Communication Policy, 63 percent of child respondents last year said they had access to the internet at school. On average, they spent about two hours per week at school on the internet, the study showed.

And web access is only the beginning. For instance, the state of Maine recently ordered 36,000 iBook computers from Apple to be distributed to seventh- and eighth-grade students in the state. One can only imagine the possibilities that internet access will bring to those American pre-pubescents.

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