Differences in universities over time

It's been interesting to watch the changes in university life over time. I've been able to see "snapshots" with ten-year gaps, since I've gone back to school a few times.


In 1984, when I got my BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), students didn't use computers routinely. I only had a few assignments that the teachers insisted be typed, and I only saw computers in my one computer science class or as a whizzy novel cool demo of emerging technology.

Answering machines were highly unusual. I heard a lot of people complain that they were very uncomfortable using answering machines, and a fair number of people thought people who used answering machines were rude. There was a deep suspicion that people just got answering machines so that they could screen calls.

Libraries were difficult to use. The card catalogue was cumbersome.

Email had been around for about ten years by this point, but the vast majority of the population was completely unaware of it.


Ten years later, when I started my MS in engineering (again at UIUC), computer use was routine. Teachers expected papers to be typed. I had one engineering class that relied heavily on Excel and another that relied on Matlab. We had to buy Excel for the former class, but at the student rate it was sort of like buying a textbook.

Libraries were easier to use. The card catalogue had moved online.

Email use was not unusual, but also not universal. Many students had email, but many did not. In computer science, students were guaranteed to have email access, but I think even in engineering, there were occasional students who did not have email. It certainly was not universal outside of the engineering college. And, since if one student didn't have email, it wouldn't be fair for the instructor to communicate with the others via email, so instructors didn't.

Web use was not routine. It existed (barely!), with quite primitive search engines and much more limited content. Most students (and most profs) didn't know about it.

Cell phones existed but were not routine. I didn't have a cell phone, and I think only two of my friends did. There was a deep suspicion that people only got cell phones to make themselves look important.

With no cell phones, if you wanted to rendezvous with someone to study, you had to be very very explicit about the exact place and the exact time. "At the library" wasn't good enough: you had to state "at the library, on the third floor, on the east side reading room, near the window that overlooks the big sculpture".

Answering machines were routine. People were completely comfortable using answering machines, and thought people were rude if they didn't have answering machines. There was a suspicion that if someone didn't have an answering machine, it was because they thought they were too important.

Again, there was no real way for instructors to send information to students except in class, but now students could phone the instructor's office and leave a message. (I think it was rare, but it happened.)



In late 2004, I took two classes part-time at San Jose State University. SJSU was an economically challenged school. Its budget had gotten cut significantly, and the students came from lower economic strata than the average college student.

While laptops were not routine, cellphones, email access, and Web access was routine. I got my assignments via the Web and grades via email. While I didn't email the instructor all that often, I probably emailed him four to six times over the semester (he taught both of my classes). I don't remember him emailing us, but am quite happy to believe that if there was a mistake in the assignment as written, he would have emailed us.

Students took notes with paper and pencil at SJSU.


In the first two quarters of 2005, I took two classes at Stanford. Stanford had everything that SJSU had, plus fantastic computing resources for the students. The resources were so good (or perhaps tuition so high?) that most CS student undergrads did not have laptops.

For four of the five Stanford classes, the lectures were videotaped and archived on the Web. The lectures also had extensive notes that were passed out on paper to the students. (This is probably not representative of Stanford classes, but an artifact of me being enrolled mostly in the "distance education" courses.) In those four classes, most students basically didn't take notes, or very few notes. (I did, mostly out of long-standing habit.) In the other class, a stats class that did not have extensive notes posted, students did take notes on paper.

I started at the University of British Columbia in the fall. UBC has everything Stanford does, plus probably about 20% of the CS undergraduates have laptops.

Teachers and teaching assistants at both Stanford routinely communicate with students (and students with each other) via BBSes. (At Stanford it was Usenet newsgroups; at UBC it's WebCT.) I'm currently a TA at UBC for an undergrad, and it's hard for me to imagine a course without being able to communicate constantly with the students.

In the undergraduate class that I TA, the lecture is given as PowerPoint, and the students basically don't take notes. For my three grad classes, one lecture is presented by video from the University of Toronto, one lecture is a PowerPoint presentation, and one is on a blackboard. People take notes for the blackboard one, but only minimal ones for the PowerPoint presentation and none for the video one. (It's in a dark room, which makes it difficult. Even I don't take many notes in that one.)

Library buildings are sort of irrelevant. Everyone looks papers up on Google or Google Scholar, and grabs the PDF.

Distance learning / distance education is becoming much more common. I now will occasionally meet random people who are taking distance education classes, and ten years ago people didn't even know what distance education was. ("Oh, you mean like correspondence courses?")

What's next?

VOIP and video chat exist, but are not common. IM is common, but not universal. Different VOIP/video chat/IM applications don't interoperate, which is slowing adoption.

Blogs are common, everybody knows what they are, but not everybody has one.

Wikis are common, but not everybody knows how to use them.

I expect that ten years from now, everyone I know will be reachable by VOIP, IM, and video-chat. I expect that everyone will know how to use a wiki.

I haven't heard anyone making snide remarks about adopters or non-adopters of VOIP, video chat, IM, blogs, or wikis yet, but give it time.

Ducky Sherwood