Friday, October 23, 2009


Netbooks for All?

A regular correspondent wrote to mention that his cc is considering mandating laptops for all students.

We've given that some vague thought on my campus, too, focusing mostly on netbooks. The idea has its advantages.

- With good wifi on campus, students could do work just about anywhere, not just in dedicated labs.

- Netbooks now are much cheaper than laptops used to be, and if they're required, they could (I think) be covered by financial aid. Some even have full-size keyboards.

- We could spend less on dedicated labs, and take fewer general-purpose classrooms out of circulation for them. This is not to be underestimated.

- Lower-income students would have a more even playing field with their more affluent peers.

All of that said, though, we haven't pulled the trigger. The reasons?

- Part-time students, non-matriculated students, etc. Only about half of our students are full-time. Does it make sense to require someone taking just one course to buy a netbook that costs more than the class? If not, then some students in a class will have the mandatory netbooks and some won't. From an instructional standpoint, that reduces the 'level playing field' effect.

- Managing expectations. Netbooks are built for net access. Even if we could get the campus wifi system to the level it should be (cough), students will only have access off-campus if they can afford it. A typical usb broadband modem runs about sixty bucks a month, which is quite a chunk of change for a student working at minimum wage. I also wouldn't be surprised if students decided that college-issued netbooks were up to the college to maintain and troubleshoot. Our IT department is struggling now, without the added burden of liability for thousands of free-floating netbooks.

- What about students who already have laptops or netbooks? It would be silly to require them to buy new ones, but financial aid gets tricky when some students need computers and some don't.

- Special programs and special needs -- macs for graphic design, say. Candidly, though, this objection strikes me as the weakest, since we could still have some specialized labs.

- This would be yet another cost item added to students' bills. Given how much some of our students struggle economically, adding a three-hundred-dollar 'nice to have' item to the 'mandatory' list should not be taken lightly.

Wise and worldly readers -- what do you think? Would it make sense to push campus computing (where possible) from fixed labs to student-owned netbooks? Are there good arguments for or against that I've overlooked?

My husband is a law student who was required to purchase a university laptop. At that level, it's ok -- and even then, we grumbled -- as we have two desktops and three laptops already.

Wouldn't a good compromise be to negotiate an even lower price than normal for the netbook and sell it in the bookstore under a category eligible for financial aid?

I do think every college student should have a netbook and I think that they should be able to use financial aid to pay for it.

As for having high-speed internet at home.. I know that DSL isn't $60.00/month here (more like $20-30), and there are plenty of non-campus places to get access to internet.
ps... I suspect many students could do peer tutoring in basic computer skills for the folks who don't know how to use word processing programs.. I know I've learned quite a bit from my students.
Powerpoints, you are going to need a lot more powerpoints
I agree with Inside the Philosophy Factory--instead of requiring netbooks, why not work out some deals with companies to get them into students' hands at lower prices with financial aid, etc?

Then, you can always have sections of certain classes where laptops--including netbooks--are required. Say, a first-year writing course that was meeting in a computer lab can now be a laptop section. I know of other universities with the laptop-required classes and it seems to work out well since students have a certain level of familiarity with their own machines. Of course, instructors must be creative and flexible about what software to use. There are a lot of free, web-based alternatives for beginner level work.

Students taking the "one course" at your institution or those who already have a desktop and don't want to purchase a laptop can then take sections of required courses where laptops are not required.
'I also wouldn't be surprised if students decided that college-issued netbooks were up to the college to maintain and troubleshoot.'

Oh, I can pretty much guarantee that will be the case. And it is much, much more time consuming to support a laptop under someone elses control than it is to maintain a computer in a fixed place in a lab that the IT people can always just use automated or at least remote support tools for.
I'm not sure how well it would work for community colleges, to be honest. But every full time student gets a laptop at my small college as part of their tuition. (they have to return them when they graduate, they're replaced every 3 years, I think, 'rented' from the company)

I just started teaching here recently and I wasn't sure how I would like it or what benefits it would have, but I absolutely LOVE it.

Many of my students are not wealthy and probably wouldn't get a computer on their own. But they have instant access now, just like their peers. I love that I can post things online and know that the students will get them practically immediately. We can use them in classes (science) for running some equipment or just for doing stats or graphing data.

I'm not in IT, but since they are all identical machines, with the same software and same bugs, I think it's probably not that bad to maintain them, etc. Also, the students take care of them better because they're "theirs" and they definitely love their laptops.

Anyway, for places where the majority of the students are full-time, I think this works way better than computer labs where students don't have equal access (I remember having to wait for computers when I was in college and rich kids had their own) and also you need way fewer computers for other, special labs, like science labs.

All the dorms are wireless and the library etc. Plus many public libraries have free wireless these days for off campus use.

While there are valid issues, like leveling the playing field for poorer students, that make mandating netbooks a good idea, there are downsides to students having laptops, too. I have had to ban students from using them in my courses, after too many students used them to surf the web or otherwise goof off during class, even in small, upper-division classes that are discussion-based. Every semester, some kids protest that they will only use it to take notes, but I only allow students with a documented disability to use them. So I think schools need to think about how/when the netbooks can be used, when they think about providing them to all students.
The library at my university maintains a "fleet" of notebooks that students can check out for use inside the building. With netbooks, that might be a solution that's cheaper than dedicated labs but avoids the problems associated with requiring their purchase. Of course security is an issue, but it might be worth crunching the numbers. (We do have dedicated labs, too, though.)
Dean Dad, you overlooked another problem that strikes me as a showstopper: It's easy for us to take computers for granted, but some of your students won't even know how to use a netbook, will have never heard of google, and may drop out simply to avoid dealing with it. An anonymous c.c. professor discusses one such student in this 2008 article from the Atlantic:

So, you'd potentially be forcing some students to buy something that would, to them, be a paperweight. To the extent netbook proficiency is required, who's going to be responsible for teaching it? Are you going to require a netbook proficiency test? Who's responsible for administering it, and who's going to setup the remedial classes for those that fail? You've mentioned remedial courses are a cost center, so how are you going to pay for it? Will it be another thing that adjunct faculty in the evergreens have to take care of? How is any of that consistent with a c.c.'s mission of open access? You have effectively created another hurdle, which is directly contrary to the "level playing field" justification.
We were discussing this yesterday at our FYE faculty meeting. The main problem we saw with netbooks is the lack of a CD/DVD tray to install necessary programs.

Also, we'd have to spring for an Office Suite for the students to use, and that quickly bumps the price out of the affordable netbook range.
This doesn't directly address the concerns you raised, but on the potential plus side I would think that you could negotiate reduced rates for textbooks if you go to a digital distribution.
Professor Beej,

What do your IT people think about those problems? You can do network installs of most programs, and there are free office suites (openoffice) that are very similar to MS office.

Both of those issues are fixable, but if your IT dept is already under a lot of strain, the extra time (installing loadsets on incoming laptops, etc) may be prohibitive.
One caution that comes to mind is security. College campuses are notoriously lax on the subject, due to a mix of hiring and retention practices, institutional open access goals, mission creep and insubstantial oversight. Combine that with a mix of high bandwidth on campus and you have a black market that prices student credentials at 10 dollars each.

Normally to attack this you must take a detectable action like connecting a computer to the wired network and sending data to the victim's computer. With unprotected wireless, anyone can listen to all the traffic in the area. Before you transition to a generally wireless student body you should consider how easy the system will be to break.

Bandwidth is a also problem; it's fine and dandy with only one person, and perhaps reasonable when limited to those who already own wifi devices. But equipping the student body like this will lead t

The next hurdle is pedagogical. Every student has a netbook, and wifi access. As an instructor, you're now competing with a device that students are expected to keep with them. It's easy to say that instructors should just change their curriculum to be more engaging and use computers more, but asking every faculty member to revisit their curriculum also places some risk on the students, who will have to cope with every class they take being under revision simultaneously. The alternative is to leave it up to faculty, many of whom will not take the effort to incorporate netbooks or even ban them as a distraction, leaving students wondering why they were asked to buy this. If you adopt this, you should consider how strong the demand is from faculty for this as a barometer of their eagerness to rewrite the lesson plans.

Finally, why netbooks? If it's because they're cheap, perhaps that's fine. If it's because they're the direction of the future, nothing goes out of date faster than yesterday's vision of the future. Smart phones are multiplying and software platforms are emerging that run on both phones and netbooks; I Google's Android runs on at least one netbook.
I think you need to survey your students concerning network access at home if that is a concern. My experience (CC sophomores who are science or engineering wannabes) is that at least 3/4 have really good access at home.

I'll also add that my wife has a netbook (albeit one that has its own storage so it is not tied "cloud" computing) and loves it. I've used it and find the screen a bit small vertically for some things but quite fine for others. And it works at all sorts of places.
One more thing to consider: will your bookstore (or whoever is selling the netbooks on your campus) buy back used ones at the end of the term like they do with textbooks? This may not matter for students who go full-time for two years and get their degree (spreading the $300 over that many classes and that much wear on the netbook makes it probably less of a big deal to them by the time they're done with it, particularly if they see it as a useful thing to have and are transferring to a 4-year) but this could be an issue for someone who say, drops out during the textbook return period at the start of the term, or decides the school is not for them after one term.

I like the idea of having certain classes that require a netbook rather than the school as a whole requiring one. I suggest taking a particularly close look at which classes get the most one-time students (I'm guessing summer session math classes, but I could be way off) and making sure that they don't require the netbooks unless there is a very good reason.
"Also, we'd have to spring for an Office Suite for the students to use, and that quickly bumps the price out of the affordable netbook range."

Switch the campus to OpenOffice (including in office applications classes you might teach) and that objection goes away pretty fast.
"Finally, why netbooks?"

Cheap is certainly nice. Long battery life (4.5 hours with WiFi on for mine) and under 3 pounds makes them far more convenient to lug around than traditional laptops.

If you actually want them in the classroom instead of sitting on the desk in their dorm room, portability is a major concern.
I agree with Kate--live WiFi in the classroom is a curse, and I've had to implement a new "no electronics in class" policy. Maybe one student will be taking notes, the rest will be on Facebook.
I think one problem with it is that you're going to have a LOT of students who won't be able to use the netbooks properly to get what they need out of them. If students are sent to a computer lab on campus, the labs have a standard configuration and it can be explained exactly how to access the needed programs, files, etc., and you'll never get as much consistency with netbooks, I think.
Long battery life (4.5 hours with WiFi on for mine)

Which is less than the time I used to spend on campus, back when I was a student. Places to recharge (and the electricity to do that) are going to be a requirement.

Which brings up another point: how long do batteries last (as in charge cycles) nowadays? My old laptop supposedly had about 200 charge cycles before the battery needs replacing, which lasted me about two years of intermittent usage. As a student I suspect I'd have gone through that in a year, especially if I had to use it in a library where I couldn't plug it in. So the cost of a replacement battery really needs to be considered part of the cost of the netbook.
I think students should be exposed through ways of technological learning. In this modern days, young students can learn different things in the internet or using a netbook for learning, guided in the course of studying.

I agree with Inside.. young minds oath to be learnedly at there age. I suppose college and universities should provide the necessary requirements to give quality education amongst students.

Its in our hands, students are at the stage of learning. Students should never mind about the bills and payment of the school requirements and all!

thus computer companies should focus on students, by donating more..
I can't think of anything a CC could possibly teach which would conceivably be more important than basic computer literacy.

Talk about your baseline required skills for functioning in US society.
One other small administrative note:I bought a netbook over the summer to supplement my desktop and love it--it's great for libraries, note-taking, short trips and the like.

That said, I still use the computer lab semi-regularly. I don't want to go to the trouble of buying and maintaining a printer, when I can just as easily do all my printing on someone else's dime. Likewise, my scanning takes place in my department or another lab. And if I ever need Acrobat Pro, Photoshop, or the like, that's where I end up.

I could set up remote printing from my netbook and purchase the other programs, but it hasn't been worth it to me.
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