Campus & Community

Pre-computer era a memory at Harvard

7 min read

Emerging technologies, integration into mission are now in the spotlight

Think seamless. Think easy. Think reliable.

Think about not thinking so hard about it.

When pondering the future of computers and information technology at Harvard, imagine doing all you can today – and more – while technology becomes easier to use, more relevant, and more reliable.

It’s already more or less indispensable.

“We’ve kind of crossed a line, in essence, where people think of it like heat and lights. Unless something extraordinary happens, it should be there,” said Harvard’s Chief Information Officer and Assistant Provost Daniel Moriarty.

Moriarty said our dependence on technology has been increasing slowly over the past 15 years or so – item by item, development by development. We’ve slowly added new gadgets and devices to our list of indispensable things until we find they’re an integral part of how we do business.

Moriarty estimated that the point of no return was crossed in 1996 or 1997, when the technology improved enough that we started to rely on it in our daily lives, as evident in the increased use of technology to deliver course material and to manage academic research, as well as the widespread reliance on e-mail.

Today that dependence can be illustrated by any number of numbers – such as the fact that Harvard’s computer network has 115,000 devices on it, Harvard’s Web pages get 10 million visitors a month, or the fact that while University telephone traffic has held steady at 38,000 calls a day, e-mail today generates 500,000 messages daily.

The e-mail message count illustrates what Moriarty said is a characteristic of new technology: We tend to add new devices rather than replace them.

He cited the pager, cell phone, personal digital assistant (pda), and laptop as technology that has mostly been layered on top of existing technology. Despite the presence of these new devices, most of us still have a desktop computer at work and telephones at work and at home.

Eventually that trend will end, Moriarty said, as convergence of technologies begins to combine functions of the different devices that we now find littering our belts and our desktops. Already, cell phones can act as pagers and pagers, which can display text messages, are acting a bit more like cell phones. Cell phones are also becoming personal digital assistants, with internal phone books and with (in some cases) the full functions of pda’s. Personal digital assistants, for their part, are becoming more like laptops, with the ability to surf the Internet and check e-mail. And laptops are becoming more and more powerful, enabling them to act as full replacements for desktop computers.

But the future’s major trends won’t just focus on consumer devices. Significant efforts have gone to make systems more fault tolerant. Efforts have also focused on deployment of high speed networks to ensure capacity is in place to support video and multimedia, perhaps from great distances. Additional work has been done to improve security by providing needed infrastructure to support secure electronic communication. And wireless capability will continue its emergence and free us from the tangle of cords and wires and the search for the data jack.

“We live in a wired world, we’re going to be living in a wireless world,” said Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS) Dean Venkatesh Narayanamurti.

Narayanamurti said that already DEAS laptop users in Maxwell-Dworkin don’t have to plug into a jack to connect to the Web, as wireless connections are available to create a fully mobile and collaborative computing environment.

Narayanamurti said DEAS professors are already experimenting with distance education through the Extension School, but while distance learning may become an important educational tool, he sees on-campus classes and learning remaining critical to Harvard College students.

What Narayanamurti does see happening on campus is an increased emphasis on technical education. Harvard’s traditional role has been to turn out broadly educated students and today no education can be considered broad without an understanding of and a comfort with information technology. One way to do that is to make it all easier.

“One of the biggest breakthroughs in research will be making computer technology very friendly, so no student is afraid of it, but rather embraces it and uses it to its full potential,” Narayanamurti said.

The changes at DEAS will be mirrored with local variations at all of Harvard’s schools and colleges. Computers have already transformed teaching, giving students access to course materials over the Web in the middle of the night, allowing communications between professor and student or student and student via e-mail, and allowing access to electronic journals long after the library is closed.

Over at the Kennedy School of Government one focus is on creating standard technology so all students are at the same level, according to Joe McCarthy, associate dean and director of degree programs. McCarthy said there are many ideas about how best to use new computer and communications technology. One plan being put into action is that in September 2003 the School will require all students to have laptop computers with the same package of software.

That will allow instructors to know that all the students in their class have the same capabilities. Add the uniform computer capabilities to the planned development of a wireless environment that will let students access the Web from anywhere and you have a powerful combination, McCarthy said.

“We see students sitting with a laptop or two analyzing data and discussing their conclusions. They don’t have to go to a lab, they don’t have to go to a classroom and it’s very convenient,” McCarthy said.

With so many businesses dependent on using technology properly, a deep investment in technology along with thoughtful plans on how to use it are key parts of the Business School’s educational experience, according to Dean Kim B. Clark.

Clark said that in addition to learning their course material at the Business School (HBS), students, surrounded as they are by technology, learn to feel natural and comfortable in a high-tech environment.

“The whole idea is to create an immersion experience, so it becomes like breathing for a student,” Clark said.

The School carefully examines whether a proposed technology furthers the educational experience, enhances research, helps build community, or helps integrate different facets of the School before adopting it. That said, the school has already used technology to enhance a host of functions, from adding video to case studies to creating an in-depth job database, complete with links to company backgrounds and to HBS alumni working at a particular company.

Clark said he sees technology continuing to be important in the Business School’s mission. As technology becomes more powerful, simulations will become a new way to immerse a student in the learning experience – by having them actually participate in a simulated meeting or event. And Clark adds that, while the technology is still very expensive, the use of two-way satellite communication can help reach students in faraway places.

With experience will come a greater ability to discern what is best taught where – on the Web, in person, or through any other media available, Clark said. Whatever the development, he said, it’s important to keep the focus where it belongs: not on the technology, but on the people using it.

“All of this stuff is about people, people are absolutely the most important thing in this domain,” Clark said. “The way you attract, manage, develop, and retain talented people is the whole game.”