The personal blog of M. Scott Smith

From the Archives: An Article that Got Some Attention 🔗

I've always been interested in journalism, and shortly after starting college in the Fall of 1991, I joined the staff of Drexel University's student newspaper. In my early years at Drexel, I was a Staff Writer and contributed news articles on a regular basis. I was also responsible for covering the crime beat, and given that Drexel was in West Philadelphia, there was never a shortage of material in that department. Later on, my writing shifted from news to satire as I became a Columnist, as can be evidenced from some of the other (lighter) entries on this page.

One of the very first articles I wrote was also the one that unquestionably had the most impact. Drexel was one of the first schools in the country to require all students to purchase a computer, but in early 1992, Drexel had not taken the step of networking the thousands of computers on campus together. (Although it may seem like the Web has been around forever, it hadn't quite permeated culture in the early 90's.) This did not sit well with me, nor with most students I spoke with. I penned an article describing Drexel's situation (which you can read by clicking the link below), and it was published on the front page of the student newspaper.

The article had an immediate impact, from students and professors right on up to the University President. The Administration of the University, always eager to market Drexel as a technological school, was not happy to see such criticism published in such a public forum. I had several messages waiting on my answering machine when I got back from classes the day the story went to press. But, these were not angry messages -- rather, Administration officials acknowledged the problem, thanked me for bringing light to it, and invited me to offer insight and suggestions to help speed along the process of networking campus.

Almost overnight, networking became a priority for Drexel, and the University began to apply its own funds to the problem rather than holding out for donors. Within a year or two, Drexel had run fiber optic lines between all buildings, and became one of the most networked Universities in the country. Not long after my graduation in 1996, Drexel added WiFi base stations across campus.

All of this would have inevitably happened whether or not I wrote the article, but the article did light a fire under the Administration and raise awareness of the problem. It was a lesson for me: I learned the power of the pen.

Lack of campus-wide computer network causes anger among Drexel faculty and students

By M. Scott Smith

(Originally appeared in the Drexel Triangle, March, 1992)

At Virginia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, and other schools across the nation, students wake up every morning and immediately walk over to their personal computer. Sitting in the comfort of their dorm room, they type a few keys on the computer and are presented with a list of electronic mail addressed to them. One student may have a piece of mail from her professor, who she had sent a question to the previous day related to an assignment. Another student may have a piece of mail from his parents in Australia. All of these messages traveled across waves of electrons and arrived at their destination in less time than it takes to open a can of soda.

The students at these schools return to their computers several times a day. In some cases they participate in electronic conferencing, where they can speak with dozens of people at the same time from across the world. Many students will access their grades through their computer, or drop and add classes without ever waiting in line. More commonly, students will electronically browse through the contents of not only their school's library, but thousands of libraries in the world -- to research information necessary for that paper on 16th century art. And electronic mail continues to be transferred around the clock, letting RA's conveniently arrange floor meetings that everyone will get notice of, and letting the university notify all students that school is canceled due to inclement weather. The possibilities of a computer network are endless, as these schools have demonstrated.

But none of this is happening at Drexel University. Many students feel Drexel University is slipping away from the state-of-the-art by not having a network. A large number of students at Drexel are aware of what a computer network is, and know that Drexel doesn't have one. Their feelings range from disturbed to outraged. "It seems silly that Drexel requires all students to buy a Macintosh, has an installed base of thousands of computers, but has no campus-wide network," said one student.

Drexel University has had plans for an extensive network waiting in the wings for some time, but the plans have not yet received funding.

Dr. J. Minas, Director of Computing Services, states that "we have a plan for interconnecting all the buildings at Drexel and also the dorms. We have no funds. My understanding is that getting external funding for networking [at Drexel] is a very high priority."

Provost Dr. Dennis Brown confirmed this. "In terms of fundraising priorities, networking is one of the highest," said Brown. "We have some proposals we've written with funding sources to [network the campus]."

Brown stated that schools such as Virginia Tech are state-supported and receive funding from the state to network their campuses. Recognizing that funding for the network project is not coming to Drexel rapidly, Brown stated that "we will also be looking at whether we need to apply some of our own funds to a campus network."

Several buildings at Drexel currently have small, local networks connected by an Ethernet backbone. (Ethernet is one method of connecting, or networking, computers.) The new Center for Automation Technology building has a passive star network, utilizing existing telephone wiring. Macintoshes in the building are linked together with a Farallon PhoneNet Star Controller. An ethernet hub in the basement allows the computers in the CAT Building to access computers all over the world. Even so, Drexel's small and localized networks are limited, and there is no campus-wide network.

In the meantime, it appears Drexel is losing many potential freshmen on account of having no network and showing no obvious signs of wanting one. Schools such as Virginia Tech talk about their network in literature sent out to high school seniors and their parents. Drexel, on the other hand, talks about being the first school to require students to buy a Macintosh, although this is commonplace in colleges today.

Sean Murphy, a high school senior from Highland, Maryland, is trying to choose between Virginia Tech and Drexel. His opinion of Drexel immediately changed when he discovered it had no network.

"[This] makes me think that since the Macintosh has the built-in capability of networking, and since everyone has a Macintosh at Drexel, someone doesn't have their head screwed on right."

Murphy pointed out that Drexel's Cooperative Education program and high caliber of teachers continued to make Drexel competitive. Another potential freshman disagreed.

"Drexel needs to realize that computer networks are more than just something nice to have on the mantelpiece. It is very important for every college to have a network today. There is a vast amount of resources available in the world through networks, and [currently] no Drexel student is able to tap into it."

The student went on to point out that high school seniors know about networks and have received pitches from other colleges related to their extensive networks. The student was appalled that Drexel's library uses a "prehistoric card catalog system." "My high school library even has a computerized card catalog system," he said.

"Carnegie Mellon has an extensive network," said another potential student.

While Drexel has squabbled over funding for the network project, possibly curtailing enrollment, many students have taken networking into their own hands. Over the past several years small networks have sprouted up in all of the dorm halls. These networks were designed, installed, and operated by students. A Kelly Hall student has designed Kelly-Net, a network which possibly covers the entire building, allowing anyone to join the network with "less than five minutes" of installation. The Residential Living Office has not stamped its approval on the project.

Nathan Smith, a sophomore computer engineering major, developed a computer network for his hall in the Myers Dorm during the 1990-1991 school year.

"I was very disappointed to find that a university that's implemented computers throughout the curriculum had no network setup at all," he recalls. "Once I found this out, I became very anxious to install my own network."

Nathan turned his Mac SE/30 into a file server for the network and began running wires down the hall.

"We built our own network boxes from Radio Shack materials, costing no more than $10 per box, and invested $30 in wiring. We hooked up 10 computers and 3 printers. Each user (or person) on the network had their own account and was able to access a file server and a mail server, both running on Mac SE/30's."

Normally Macintosh users must buy AppleTalk adapters to make their Macintosh network-ready. Equipment Support Group charges $35.00 for the Farallon PhoneNet, one such adapter. Nathan was able to defray this cost by building his own network boxes. "Our system worked just as well and just as fast," says Nathan.

Another network was just installed which is capable of supporting over 30 students. An electronic mail application was designed on the Macintosh by a Drexel student to defray the cost of buying an expensive commercial E-Mail program.

Currently, there are several large networks in all of the dorms. The Residential Living Office states that running wires down halls is in violation of RLO regulations.

When asked what his feelings were concerning students wiring the dorms themselves, Brown stated that "I have no problem with students being creative, as long as it's legal."

Minas was familiar with some of the networks students had wired in the dorms and supported their behavior. When the network project finally gets rolling, "a model of the students' networks will be used. We will connect the LocalTalk networks to a campus backbone," said Minas. "[The students' networks] are a pretty efficient model."

"Students will have to be a part of the implementation. A lot of the management of the network will be handled by students," especially in the dorms, said Minas.

Drexel's plans for a network include laying optical fiber between all buildings on campus. Inside buildings such as dorms, twisted pair wiring will link the computers with the digital fiber.

Some of the dorms, such as the New Towers, have already potentially been wired for a network. "We asked that a lot of extra copper wire be put into every room," said Minas. "Of course, all dorms must be examined for quantity and quality of wire," he added. Installing the network in each dorm "would not require much internal re-wiring," he pointed out.

The benefits of a network at Drexel would be enormous. A network would provide the "possibility for data communications from almost anywhere to anywhere," said Minas. Students would be able to access remote libraries and databases, download software, and enjoy communication with students from all over the world, among other things.

"One of the things we're interested in is having students on co-op plug back in to bulletin boards to keep in touch with campus," Brown said. Drexel's network would be reachable from just about any computer in the world. Brown stated that research would be performed to look into the kind of curriculum enhancement that would allow Drexel to take full advantage of the network.

The benefits of a network are accompanied with some problems, although few people could think of negative things to say about a network at Drexel. Computer viruses are a threat which can be amplified by the connectivity of a network.

"Viruses are a problem," said Minas. "They're not caused by a network but a network can help propagate them. Another issue is security. As you open [a system] up to more and more users, no matter who they are, it becomes a bigger risk."

Brown's main worry about the network was that it might not fully be taken advantage of. He didn't think that would be a problem at Drexel, though. "We've got a lot of sophisticated computer users here," he said.

"We have to watch out to take advantage of being networked -- in terms of handling curriculum, for instance, should we have students hand in homework electronically?"

Brown also mentioned the possibility of networking fraternities.

Minas said the "uses to which a network can be put to begin to multiply enormously." For example, students at Drexel will some day be able to access their academic records and perform course scheduling from their personal computer, although Minas admitted "that's quite a ways off."

But the "network" at Drexel continues to be a daydream for faculty and students until it receives funding, and there's no clear signs that funding will come anytime soon. Meanwhile, many students have successfully and economically set up their own networks, having grown impatient from Drexel's lack of initiative. Drexel isn't becoming famous for having a sophisticated network, but it is gaining attention for having creative students who are industrious enough to strive to keep Drexel with the state-of- the-art.

"I only wish we didn't have to network behind Drexel's back," said one student networker. "It would be nice if the Residential Living Office would sit down with us and take interest in what we're doing. What we're doing is totally safe, harmless to the dorms, and very productive for students and for Drexel as a whole."

Drexel will continue to put off the network until external funding arrives. No one could give a prediction for when that date might arrive.

"It's in someone else's hands now," said Brown.

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