Student governments go online to reduce apathy

By Ryan Robbins
The Maine Campus

When student apathy showed no signs of improving, University of Maine Association of Graduate Students President Hugo Volkaert decided to do something about it. Volkaert contacted Computing and Data Processing Services and asked for a newsgroup to be created for the UMaine local Usenet feed.
The newsgroup, Volkaert said, is a forum for graduate students to discuss issues that affect them. The newsgroup is also a bulletin board for minutes of AGS meetings, grant information and other items of interest to graduate students.
"In a way it's making representatives obsolete," Volkaert said.
James Harrod, president of the class of 1996 at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said he has been posting information on his school's electronic bulletin board system in an effort to generate interest in student government.
"I feel that this posting is often a very effective way to reach disenfranchised students who often feel either alienated by SGA or see it as a social elite clique which is simply concerned with the inflation of our own egos," Harrod said.
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Director of Student Services Matthew Gregory said his student government puts its senate bills on-line and is in the midst of putting course syllabi on-line so students can compare professors who teach the same courses.
Each day about 30 messages are sent to a complaint and suggestion bulletin board, Gregory said. Out of 26,000 students Tennessee's BBS covers, Gregory estimates there are about 100 consistent readers.
"Student reaction has been very positive," Gregory said. "Students are happy that they are able to have direct input to SGA without having to come up to the office."
Not only are computers being used by student governments to communicate with their constituents, they are also being used by governments to communicate with each other.
Anthony Rosati is the information exchange coordinator and a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, which represents about half a million graduate and professional students. Rosati said that since its inception in 1986, the NAGPS has encouraged its members to use the Internet, a world-wide network of networks, to exchange information and ideas.
The association maintains an electronic mail reflector site, which receives e-mail and sends copies to more than 300 subscribers. The association also maintains a file transfer site where Internet users can copy files about graduate and professional students to their computers. Rosati said NAGPS will have a Gopher server next month. Developed at the University of Minnesota, Gopher is a program that allows Internet users to "tunnel" across the Internet without having to remember computer addresses.
But while computers may make it easier for student governments to tackle apathy, they must still overcome some students' fears of computers.
Harrod said, "I find that electronic information is a very effective way of stirring interest and advertising things. But due to computer phobia, it does not always reach a majority of the campus."
Volkaert said, "Not everybody's listening and that's the problem."
Computers may make it easier and quicker to inform students, but not everyone has an account to access to e-mail, he said. Newsletters are still the only way to guarantee access to all students. But it's expensive.
Volkaert said he hopes that in the future more students will learn to use electronic mail and get involved.
Still, Gregory thinks putting information on-line will work out in the long run.
"In this age of students not being able to catch up with each other, I find this project very worthwhile," he said.

This story originally appeared in Feb. 25, 1994, edition of The Maine Campus. Copyright 1994, Ryan R. Robbins.