February 7, 2007 9:00 PM PST

Students offer Net advice to colleges

SAN FRANCISCO--Despite the fears that kids are leaving permanent digital footprints when they post personal information online, college students think it would be even weirder if someone didn't exist on the Web.

"It would concern me about their ability to use the computer. I haven't encountered something like that. Everyone in my generation (is) somehow, someway on the Internet," said Lorrie Ma, a 23-year-old junior in the undergraduate programs of mechanical engineering and marketing at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley.

"I'd be very scared of that person. I'll just say that," said Darian Shirazi, a 20-year-old sophomore in the philosophy department at the University of California at Berkeley.

Ma and Shirazi spoke Wednesday as part of a student panel at the Sun Microsystems' Worldwide Education and Research Conference here. The three-day conference drew hundreds of education IT professionals from around the world, who for this panel, were particularly interested in students' perspective on technology in the classroom.

One of the strongest messages for educators from the two students was that universities shouldn't try to restrict access to online information and social-networking sites like MySpace or Facebook. Rather, universities should educate kids on the positives and negatives of those sites and offer best practices for Internet use.

"Allow people to access wikis that describe privacy issues, like what information should you be sharing," Shirazi said. "I'd much rather be educated than told what to do."

Ma added that it's easier to find people's contact information on Facebook than it is through the university system.

Ma, who is also an intern at in Sun's education group, said that wireless access on campus is an issue.

"One of biggest things universities don't understand is that if it doesn't provide Wi-Fi access points, some people can't communicate with (peers) for group work or collaborative activities," Ma said. And that's no small disconnect, given that Ma said she keeps in touch with as many as 100 people on the Web each day, including friends and classmates.

When it came to the subject of libraries, Shirazi and Ma said that digitization of books would be most useful to students. That's because the library is largely an outpost for students to study or use the Internet to get PDF data for schoolwork, rather than a place to check out books.

Ma said that at Santa Clara University--one of the first universities with robots that retrieve books for students--people argue that automation is detrimental to book browsing. But she said that the argument doesn't hold up because students more often just want to access specific information, rather than browse for books.

"The best investment in the library is to make it all electronic," Shirazi said.

When it comes to their own digital tracks online, Ma was at least a little regretful of her younger years. She said he had removed an old site of hers from the Web, but Google still kept a cached version that people could access.

"It's something I didn't think about," Ma said. "Universities can teach us about those things instead of stopping us from it."

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