During 2003, the internet demonstrated its ability to come down hard when and where it pleased. Viruses, worms, denial-of-service attacks, automated spam senders, and the reckless weight of the internet's unintended consequences nearly crushed campus networks. IT departments lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of key technical staff time fighting to stay up and running. They also lost headway on projects from which they had to divert talent and money. Perhaps most painful, they lost a lot of credibility on their home turf.
One academic year later, the internet is still unruly, but campus networks are much more resilient. Automatically delivered operating systems patches and anti-virus updates have helped fend off the assault. The networks have been outfitted with anti-intrusion appliances and more sophisticated use of bandwidth shapers and network routers--helping them survive the malicious impositions from "out there."
But while viruses still abound and many observers estimate internet e-mail to be nearly 80 percent spam and other unwanted messages, the internet has grown strongly in importance to institutions of higher education. More business is conducted over the network, and when internet entrepreneurs fail to offer the tools or services the campus community needs, colleges and universities often create their own.
Specialized computing applications, even those as heavily regulated for data privacy as electronic medical records (EMR), are now commonly available as hosted services accessed via the internet. Only two years ago, most of these were sold as server-based software only. For example, Nuesoft's Medicat Xpress is an exclusively internet-delivered medical data management system drawing on 11 years of the company's experience in the university health center market. Physician Micro Systems's product Practice Partner ASP (application service provider) brings its EMR system, widely used by small practices--including college and university health centers--to the internet as an application service. This industry is growing fast, spanning large and small academic customers, offering internet and locally hosted options, and a growing degree of interoperability with the systems used by medical labs, hospitals, and insurance companies.
Another rapidly expanding ASP field is that of bulk electronic mailing. The increased sophistication of spam-filtering software in use at ISPs (internet service provider) and on home computers has created a market for legitimate mass mailers. Institutions of higher education are becoming reluctant to use their campus e-mail systems for mass communication with off-campus constituencies, such as alumni. While many microcomputer-based products offer mass-mailing capability, some institutions are choosing to follow the success they have had with paper bulk mailers, and so are seeking an ASP approach to bulk e-mail. Convio focuses on supporting electronic outreach by nonprofits, with special services for alumni and development functions. L-Soft's ListPlex product is advertised to blend with the campus information environment so as not to appear to be outsourced at all. Lyris Technologies' ListHosting service is another product in the ASP bulk-mailing field, offering features developed over 10 years in the mailing software business. These services provide extensive reports on mailings, trap "vacation" return messages, keep lists of incorrect addresses, screen for viruses, and generally shelter the campus e-mail systems from the undesirable side effects of large mailings.
Of course, many of the commercial services used by the wider population are heavily represented in the internet traffic flowing in and out of campus networks. Office supplies come commonly from Staples, Office Depot, and others--"favorites" in the web browsers in many college and university offices. Express shipping companies, like Federal Express, United Parcel Service, and DHL are also directly accessible on the internet by clerical personnel for services ranging from pick-up through tracking. Not to be outdone, the United States Postal Service sells stamps and provides extensive rate information online.
Students walking from the campus post office to their dorm rooms with boxes from Amazon or clothing companies such as Land's End might be collecting goods ordered by their families or themselves. The internet as purveyor of commercial activity spans campus and home seamlessly. The list of most-contacted internet sites for any campus is heavy in dot-coms. In times of crisis, CNN, the Cable News Network, quickly rises to the top of that list. The internet is increasingly an important baseline of normality for students, connecting them to resources they knew from home.
The biggest nonsecret in campus networking is that music sharing via peer-to-peer (P2P) software is probably still the most common internet activity after e-mail. The internet, in a development that has flourished from the earliest days of student access, is a virtual community with its own set of ethics and practices. Copyright violation is generally considered rampant, including exchange of music and films but also copying of texts without attribution--leading to cat-and-mouse battles with commercial publishers and also faculty--who use web browsers or sometimes commercial services like Turnitin to troll for student plagiarism. The internet is also a battleground for many in the library community, concerned that students are not adequately guided in evaluating materials they find in their independent searches. Faculty, too, are recognizing a lack of control over sources for which students once depended on them--via reference lists and suggested or supplemental readings.
At some point, the internet's potential as the "ultimate reading machine" will collide with the world-wide commercialization of copyright (under the Berne Convention of 1886 and numerous subsequent revisions). The internet is now seeing a rising number of commercial adaptations to the most widespread and controversial form of copyright infringement--music copying. Services such as Apple's iTunes, Napster in its post-lawsuit form, and RealNetworks' Rhapsody download service are vying to provide legal music for fees intended to challenge the temptation to copy for free illegally. It is not unusual now that students targeted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) have a mix of legal and illegal music on their computers, and that in some cases they have stopped illegal copying--but just neglected to remove earlier downloads they made before they changed their ways.
Most IHEs have been slow to accommodate students' interest in ad hoc user communities (discussion groups). It is not unusual for that gap to be filled by Yahoo groups, which are easy and cost-free to set up. Whether in-coming students or alumni classes, many have established their own groups without institutional involvement (or even knowledge). Many students continue to use Yahoo or America Online e-mail accounts even though they are provided by their IHE with standard accounts. This practice is probably due to students feeling they have already established an identity--and network of contacts--that they do not want to lose. Many IHE-provided accounts are set by students to forward to their pre-existing commercial accounts.
One of the newest internet services drawing wide interest is the non-institutional directory. The Facebook is the project of Mark Zuckerberg and associates, originating at Harvard University (Mass.) and now extended to most colleges and universities. The service gives students the opportunity to compile personal profiles and exercise a measure of control over the accessibility of their information. Competitors include "campusnetworks" and ConnectU. Their primary appeal is that they provide more personal detail than campus directory services allow. As a sociological phenomenon these online directories are becoming key to faster and wider identification among students with common interests.
But a degree of controversy is beginning to grow around these new ventures, particularly over the extent and kind of data-harvesting the services add to the information provided by their users and the degree to which information privacy will be a concern of the services and their users.
Weblogs (or more commonly "blogs") are flourishing as a form of online journal, typically administered and written by a single user or a specified list of users. Readers can often add comments but not change others' postings. Wikis (from a Hawaiian word meaning "quick") are similar but more collaborative in nature, allowing virtually any visitor to edit any posted materials.
Facebooks, blogs, and wikis are viewed with mixed feelings by campus administrators. To the extent that these remain expressions and provisions of information by individuals, they seem useful outlets for students. But, inevitably, the name, data, and reputation of the institution to which the student belongs worries some administrators, many of whom are just becoming aware how much information their own websites make available to those with the interest and means to "harvest" and assemble it for unintended purposes. These same administrators have had to comply with increasingly strict limits on publication of data about their students, even as these new student-oriented resources are spreading in popularity.
Tom Warger is a consulting principal for Edutech International (www.edutech-int.com).