Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 14, Number 2
Winter 1992


The computer leads stunning changes in the once Spartan dorm room

by Richard Lovegrove

Only a decade ago the high-tech dormitory room usually consisted of little more than a hot pot, a stereo, and the rare refrigerator. Today, alumni from those days of yore might come away from a stroll through Ambler Johnston or Pritchard stunned by rooms cluttered with microwaves, color television sets hooked up to university-provided cable, refrigerators, and VCRs. The hated community phone at the end of the hall has been replaced by a phone in each room.

The change "reflects an improvement in the style of living across the country," says Phillip Bowden, director of network research and planning. "Dorm rooms used to be really Spartan. Now it's really difficult to locate a dorm room that doesn't have a microwave, a computer, a stereo, fancy-schmancy television..."

Increasingly central to this technological tangle is the personal computer, a machine that already has changed the way courses are taught, and even is altering social interaction.

"My guess is that for a two-person dorm room, almost every room on campus has at least one computer," says Andy Cohill, a Virginia Tech systems analyst who works on university-produced software to help students tap into sources of information such as a calendar of events or the academic catalogue.

As a result of the electronic proliferation, Virginia Tech engineers toil in their dorm rooms, building a computer prototype for a project before attempting the real thing. If they hit a snag, they can plug into the data switch the university provides for all dorm phones to link up with experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or virtually anywhere. Closer to home, any student with a computer can use the same data link to scan the archives of the Newman Library for material to improve an assignment.

Warren Gardner doesn't tap into the data switch the university provides on his phone in West Eggleston, but the sophomore biochemistry major uses his computer to build molecules, write papers to get past his "beyond sloppy" handwriting, and occasionally to impress a professor with his ability to spiff up an assignment by adding computer-generated graphics.

Todd Hoots, a business management major, likes to exchange computer data or programs with a buddy while the two talk over his university-installed phone at the same time. He also frequently uses the Virginia Tech Library Systems, but when he is more in the mood for some entertainment, he climbs into his computer's version of a submarine and wages underwater battle with a friend down the hall or across campus.

Hoots, Gardner, or any on-campus student with a computer--and the know-how--also can tap into Internet, known as the network of networks, and roam electronically throughout the world. They can consult on a problem with experts at other universities around the globe; participate in bulletin boards that run the gamut from heavy philosophy to picture files; or eavesdrop on world events--Scud missiles falling in Israel or tanks rolling down the street during the recent failed Soviet coup, for instance--as they are happening.

Computers made their first visible impact on the Virginia Tech campus in 1984 when the College of Engineering started requiring its majors to own one, thereby eliminating the need to traipse across campus at 3 a.m. to use the computer lab and immediately increasing the students' exposure to computer use.

In engineering, says Joe Tront, dean of computing for the College of Engineering, the abacus was replaced by the slide rule, which was replaced by the calculator "and now everybody's got a personal computer replacing the calculator." Knowledge in engineering is increasing at such an rapid rate, Tront says, "you have to have a computer to keep up with it."

The College of Business does not require students to own a computer--and probably never will because so many bring their own without any prompting--but they must learn to operate one. Some professors teach in class using a laptop now. Only six years ago, sophisticated calculators were as fancy as it got. "If they want to use the old calculator, that's up to them, but they're not going to get their assignments done as quickly," says Hap Bonham, associate dean. "The complexity of the problems we can give them has increased."

A core of professors at the College of Engineering are preparing for the future by slowly integrating computer video and sound into their classroom lessons. One classic computer video shows the collapse of the Tacoma, Wash., Narrows Bridge. The lesson allows students to build a frame model, apply some new equations, and the computer will then show the solutions to those equations in an effort to discover what changes would have saved the bridge. "The students can actually see something happening," Tront says. "We envision one in three or one in four lessons will be mutli-media eventually."

CD Rom, a computer add-on that works on much the same principal as stereo compact discs, makes multi-media possible by storing the large amounts of data necessary. Tom Walker, an engineering fundamentals associate professor who is a prime mover in using multi-media, foresees the day when most students will be able to access video images from their dorm rooms.

Administrators knew a certain segment of students would latch onto the data switch immediately, but most were stunned by the rate at which student-run bulletin boards--computer-accessible versions of discussion groups or the standard cork bulletin board used for posting messages--proliferated. Officials set up a university bulletin board, known as VT CoSy and later turned it over to students. More than 1,000 people now have an "account" on VT CoSy. Other students quickly established another dozen or so of their own bulletin boards. "Whoever wants to can create conferences on this system," says Curt Tilmes, an undergraduate who works 20 hours a week in the computer center. "There's no restrictions really on anything."

The conferences can be wide open or restricted to a few folks. Some are utilitarian, such as one for people looking for a roommate or another devoted to want ads. Others are academic, devoted to specific disciplines. And then there are the more frivolous ones, such as "An open Monty Python Flying Circus" conference; "Love for sale;" or "Enough already," which asks whether readers are "tired of the stupid new conferences."

The bulletin boards have their downside, as well. Unregulated, they can be used to spread rumors and viciousness. "There's a good exchange of information there," says Tront. "There's also an exchange of bad information." And some students get too caught up in them. "I know three people who are not back here this year because they spent so much time on bulletin boards" and playing computer games, says Warren Gardner, the sophomore biochemistry major. Hoots also stays away from the boards most of the time, although he does have access to VT CoSy. "It takes a lot of time, more than I'm willing to devote to it," Hoots says.

The potential for computers is just dawning on some, but in the early to mid 1980s, it became apparent to Virginia Tech administrators the communications needs of students and faculty were increasing. At the same time, the court-ordered divestiture of AT&T was opening new possibilities. With people such as Robert Heterick, retired vice president for information systems, and Earving Blythe, now acting vice president for information systems, leading the way, the university floated a bond issue, strung more than 1,000 miles of fiber optic cable, installed 7,000 data-and-voice phones, 3,000 voice-only phones and put cable television in each dorm room. Suddenly, starting in 1988, students were hooked into the world at a cost of only $220, which is automatically added to their room fee.

Since the communications system was installed, says Heterick, hundreds of people from other universities and various organizations have stopped by Blacksburg for a look at how it was done. "We were among the very first to do that, and even to this day, I don't know of anyone else who has done it to the extent we did," Heterick says. Bowden says many universities offer similar communications capabilities to its faculty, but few have provided it for students.

"I thought it was really nice that all the phones act as a modem," says Hoots, whose interest in computers started in the fifth grade. "I was impressed by that."

Potential employers also are impressed. Hoots is co-oping with IBM. "The people at IBM told me they like Virginia Tech [because of the experience students get with computers].

"I've really been lucky having an interest in it [computers]," Hoot says. "You'd really be put at a disadvantage if you didn't have one."

Semi-retired vice president made computers his life

When Robert Heterick stepped down as Virginia Tech's vice president of information systems and into semi-retirement Oct. 1, he packed up his personal computer and headed off to the beach.

Heterick decided 30 years ago he would focus his career on the burgeoning world of computers, so it was only natural he would take one along to flag down the 25 to 50 electronic messages still sent to him daily. "I never leave home without it," he says.

A fixture at the university since he arrived as a student in 1954, Heterick says he is "retired enough I'm working on my golf game, but not retired enough to fix it." He still works part-time on campus as director of the Center for Information Technology Innovation, and is leading a far-reaching effort to add computer communication capability to all Blacksburg telephone lines. If successful, every household and business would be able to hook up with any other computer in town or at the university, as well as with networks involving some 700,000 computers around the world.

As fantastic as the concept, dubbed the "Blacksburg Electronic Village," may seem, to Heterick it's the only way the university can fulfill its goal to deliver a full communications package to virtually every student, including the huge number who live off campus. Heterick helped direct the project that gave on-campus students their current voice/video/data package, work that made him realize "we needed to do the whole town."

Heterick earned his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in engineering at Virginia Tech. Although he has taught or worked in the colleges of engineering, architecture, and business over the years, it was the new world of computers that grabbed his attention in the early 1960s when he did some consulting work for the Roanoke architecture and engineering firm Hayes, Seay, Mattern, and Mattern. At that time, Heterick used the university's computer, which was so huge users could walk into it through doors for just that purpose. "The problem I was working on in 1960 took four or five hours [for the computer to run]," Heterick said. "Anybody now with a $500 personal computer could do it in about three minutes."

Heterick also directed the university's computing center for six years starting in 1968, and became vice president of information systems in 1986. By the early 1980s, Heterick and others at the university started thinking about providing computer linkage for students, more of whom were showing up for school computer literate and lugging their own setups along. By 1985, they were working on their plan to revolutionize the dorms and every other campus building.

Now Heterick's primary professional passion is the Blacksburg Electronic Village, a project which will require close cooperation among officials from the university, Blacksburg, and C&P. Current plans aim for a public announcement of details next summer. Completion of the plan most likely is several years away. "We're very excited," Heterick says.

The trick, Heterick says, will be to provide the computer capability to people who want it, without significantly increasing costs to those who do not. Tough decisions will be involved. Virginia Tech might have to defer some other important project, and C&P almost certainly would have to wait a while for its pay-off. Heterick says he is "frankly very impressed they're even willing to consider it."

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 14, Number 2 Winter 1992