Laptops and computers have become so crucial to our understanding of higher education that it’s odd to think of how recent the introduction of this technology is. What is even more interesting is to think about the transition into using computers, and all the various opinions and attitudes surrounding the use of computers and the internet at school.

Computers began replacing the card catalog for locating books at WU Olin Library in the early 1980s

Computers began replacing the card catalog for locating books at WU Olin Library in the early 1980s

The following paragraphs are from the Washington University Record, 1984.

 Computers are even finding their way into such unlikely fields as social work. The WU Social Work Computing Facility, which opened last semester, contains personal computers, mainframe terminals and printers. According to David Cronin, assistant dean of social work, students very likely will go on to use computing skills as social work practitioners, not just in word processing and data analysis, but even in direct interaction with clients.

“I would say that in five years, there will be a cadre of people in social work who are proficient with computers and a great number of social services or agencies which regularly use such equipment for social service delivery, case management and administration,” he says. “Demands for accountability will be greatly eased by the computer, and the social workers will be able to concentrate on the important things… like going social work”.

Below are excerpts of a Student Life article from 1998 discussing the social feelings of excitement and hesitation about laptops:

With today’s technology, students are looking to laptop computers to ease the pain of hour-long lectures. New products—like backpacks designed for toting books and computers—as well as national sales of laptops suggest that good old-fashioned notebooks may not be in use for much longer.

While laptops enable students to save time and be more organized, they can be a distraction to themselves. Some students play games while other students have been known to work on papers or do some high-tech doodling in class. “You know those law students, they probably have a harder time—they’ve got internet connections,” commented Tucker about the new law school’s outfitting of classrooms with computer ports.

Another common complaint heard on campus is that a laptop needs a battery. While this is an obvious fact, it is also an obvious problem, since batteries last only one to three hours.

“Using a laptop in class is still kind of taboo. People point, I don’t know if they laugh, but I don’t really care.”


Carole Prietto, Special Collections and Archives staff, helps a student with an early online computer in Olin Library, circa 1990s

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.