space holder 2002: A Cyberspace Odyssey (continued)

    Several students mentioned how much they valued the chance to meet their peers before coming to Penn. The group is planning a get-together for mid-September, but they've already thrown several parties for themselves in various locations.
    A few things alumni have learned this summer about the incoming class:
    Not only do they frequently quote the Simpsons, as do recent graduates; they grew up with them.
    Full House was their Leave It to Beaver, their Brady Bunch, their Family Ties.
    They are the first freshman class born -- look away if you don't want to read something graphic -- after Ronald Reagan was elected president.
    They were learning to crawl during the premiere of MTV.
    And the biggest difference of all: The Internet is a way of life for them.
    To today's teenagers, blasting messages through cyberspace is second nature. In 1997, the first year the Penn admissions office asked applicants for their e-mail addresses when they applied, 5,720 out of 15,464 applicants, or 37 percent, listed one. But this year, the number jumped to 10,033 students out of 15,854 applicants, or 63 percent. Dean of Admissions Lee Stetson says he expects it to be around 80 percent next year.
    So the question then becomes, how far does one take the technology? What will universities do with a course like the 2002 Project? This one started in January of the participants' senior years; will the sequel, or similar courses at other campuses, start for applicants in September? Will they cost money, or be free? Will the University start designing mini-courses for exceptional high-school juniors and sophomores as well? (Math professor DeTurck is actually involved in setting up calculus courses for advanced high schoolers nationwide with the Sylvan Learning Center to begin this October). Will gifted middle-school students get to try it? And if the bulk of pre-college courses are confined to the end of students' senior years, which students will be involved? Will the courses be offered to all Penn pre-freshmen? Will the participants be separated into groups of 20 or 30, much like the discussion groups that are organized during freshman orientation? Will alumni be recruited to help facilitate? And speaking of freshman orientation: will it be offered, in the future, via the Internet over the summer instead of during the first week of school?
    How far will electronic college preparation go?
    "We certainly want to expand it and extend it and do more of it," O'Donnell says. "Doing more will require us to do serious thinking about appropriate resources."
    "I have asked Jim O'Donnell and Al Filreis to investigate ways to expand it in the future," says President Rodin. "What better way for members of the new class to become acquainted, build relationships with faculty, and keep our alumni in touch with their alma mater?"
    Everyone interviewed was hard-pressed to find a downside to expanding such a program -- even in the face of intense prodding. But apparently, most schools are only beginning to look into such programs, if they've considered them at all. Brown University, for example, which began experimenting with electronic courses for alumni back in 1994, offered a no-credit Internet chemistry course for pre-freshmen this summer, but the results aren't in yet and the school hasn't begun to explore further options, according to Dean of Summer Studies Karen Sibley. "We're not prepared at this point to decide what to do with distance-learning, much less distance-learning with pre-freshmen," Sibley says. "It depends whether you want to be on the cutting edge or take a wait-and-let's-see approach. Brown is taking a wait-and-let's-see approach."
    The 2002ers interviewed say that none of their high-school peers were involved in such a program with the schools they plan to attend. Professors say that, as far as they know, the 2002 Project, with input from so many different sectors of the Penn community, is unprecedented.
    Dennis DeTurck says that some professors are actually trying to install computers in classrooms so that the best aspects of electronic courses and discussions can be imported back into classes. "When students are in the classroom," he explains, "some will always raise their hands, [but] others will never answer. Others will defer: 'What does that girl in the front row who always gets it right say?' [Electronically], it's private,anonymous, and honest."
    Carpal tunnel syndrome notwithstanding, it is clear that decades into the future, the classes of 2012 and 2022 and 2032 will look back at an article like this one and chuckle over how primitive things were back in 1998, much the way the incoming frosh scoff at tales of the 5 a.m. drop-add lines that went the way of the dinosaurs in 1990. And, just as O'Donnell said of his own freshman-year course selection, there will have been some mistakes made during the period of adjustment -- but everyone will have survived.
    "I really wish this program or something like it was available when I was a pre-freshman," says Randi Feigenbaum, C'97. "It's great for little things, like reassurances about advanced registration and the need for halogen lamps. But it's also an incredible forum to begin the college process a few months early. [It] gets them thinking about what they want from their Penn experience now, instead of when it's too late. It's made me a bit homesick for dear old Penn, and for the academic banter and social interactions that were so common there. In a way, it's made me wish I could have a second crack at my own Penn experience. I'd probably do things very differently knowing what I know now. Since we've been imparting some of those nuggets to this year's frosh class, I think they're going to have an even better experience than I did. And mine was pretty darn good."
    The key, then, is to find the top of the curve -- the point at which this type of program is most advantageous and least detrimental. Perhaps the class of 2002, when they graduate, will go on to careers in academe and dedicate their time to researching this matter, in between becoming engaged to each other, waxing nostalgic about nineties sitcoms, building a better halogen lamp, composing symphonies, and having plenty of "aha" moments.

Caren Lissner, C'93, (LiZZner@aol.com) has previously written about the Philomathean Society and done a parody of alumni notes for the Gazette. She also published a humorous op-ed in The New York Times this summer, which was promptly posted to the 2002 list by Jim O'Donnell.
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