Thursday, October 07, 2010


Mandating Laptops

Does anyone out there work at a public college that mandates that students buy laptops?

I’m increasingly convinced that we need to do something like that. We could define ‘laptop’ pretty broadly to include not just netbooks but also ipads and maybe even smartphones -- anything that gives students wireless internet.

Part of the draw is the sheer cost (in both money and space) of open computer labs. As it stands, in many of our open labs there’s a 30 minute limit per station when every station is taken, and that’s most of the time. The labs are staffed as best we can, but work-study students aren’t 100 percent reliable, and the money just isn’t there for full-timers. If we were able to convert some of those labs to teaching spaces, and redirect some of those resources to faculty, I can’t help but think we’d accomplish more, educationally.

But there’s also the issue of paper.

Every semester, we print a course schedule for general distribution. We have to get class schedules done unreasonably early to allow time for layout and printing. The schedule is obsolete from the minute it’s out, since changes are ongoing. But every time we talk about getting rid of it and driving the course scheduling online -- where the information is up-to-the-minute -- we run smack into the issue of access. Paper is portable, and cheap, and everyone who wants it can get it. (The schedule is available to students free of charge.)

When professors meet with students in their offices for academic advisement, scheduling is often a part of that. (The conflation of ‘advising’ with ‘scheduling’ is another issue altogether.) Working with two paper bulletins is sometimes easier than working with one screen. Worse, some faculty are still -- amazingly -- allergic to anything electronic.

If we could get to the point where every student had his/her own little screen, and could go on the system wherever and whenever they wanted, many of these issues would go away. We could stop spending thousands of dollars on paper bulletins that convey bad information. We could convert scarce space from the 1990’s model open computer lab to more pressing needs.

With free wi-fi becoming more common off campus -- they have it at McDonald’s now -- and ubiquitous on campus, the objection from cost of monthly service is looking less compelling than it once did. If laptops or something similar were required, they could presumably be covered by financial aid just like textbooks are, so between subsidized equipment and free wifi, the financial barrier is looking smaller. From the institution’s perspective, it would allow us finally to capture some of the efficiency gains from technology that until now have remained unrealized due to too many digital holdouts (or castouts).

Wise and worldly readers at campuses that have actually made this leap -- how did it work? Any advice you’d give a campus that’s thinking it over?

I personally would very much like to see it at Eastern Michigan, which is a university that has a lot of "working class" and/or "first generation" college students. But I think at EMU, we're practically already there. Just the other day, I asked my first year composition students had laptops; the answer was 18 out of 19. The one who didn't have a laptop had a desktop.

If there were an institutional requirement for a laptop, I think it would be best to set up some minimum standards since not all netbooks/laptops are created equal. There's also the problem (at least at EMU) of theft and/or loss of the equipment. Still, I'd like to see it.
*Everything* at Zenith is online, and while we don't mandate the purchase of a laptop, we do wrap it into financial aid for the students who want/need them.

We got rid of our course bulletin some years ago and there was great rending of garments, but it did save money in the tens of thousands. Furthermore, our students are very into saving paper. The down side of all of this are the unexpected consequences of heavy computer use. My informal view is that some people can take the repetitive motion for every task and a few people's hands (overwhelmingly women) seem to crumble under the strain. The other day, as I was talking to a student who cannot type without pain and is being treated for it, it occurred to me that if we are moving towards an entirely online education world we might need to recommit to actually teaching people how to type properly.
We just got rid of our paper copies this past year. It was just announced that it would be the last one ever printed. Similarly, paper versions of course catalogs seem to have disappeared.

We've also adopted a de facto policy of, "those faculty who do not use the internet will not be academic advisors."

The students seemed to be nonplussed.

Advising appointments now do seem rather like a game of battleship. What about X? Ooooh, no!

Also, my majors have no real flexibility in their schedule, we program all of their courses for them and I know when they all meet, so it's not really going to help them much to have a schedule.
I am a long time follower and love your blog, I get a lot of great perspectives here.

I work at a 4yr public (the state's flagship school) and we have required laptops of all undergraduates for a while now. I can't say much about how it's affected things like our course bulletin (I don't actually work on the UG side of campus) but I did want to mention a few things.

First, the university negotiated a deal with one brand of computers (Lenovo in our case) to provide a very affordable option for students. I believe this option comes with a standard software package already installed (MS Word, some other basic stuff) and a warranty of some kind. I don't know the details, but it seems like something any school considering this should look into. Students aren't required to get this computer, but it is a nice option for scholarship students on those on financial aid, or really anyone who is being cost conscious.

Second, you need also to think about providing tech support for those laptops when they inevitably break. That has now become an important function of our IT unit and I think it something you would need to have available at your campus too. There are walk in offices for little issues and then of course, loaner laptops for problems that require overnight or multiple days to fix.

Just a few things to consider. Good luck
We do. All students get some cash to buy it too (it comes out of their fees in the end, but that's the way of the world). If they already have a laptop then they just get the cash.

It's necessary because we do exercises in class on software. 8 or 9 years ago supposedly we had a big computer lab, but these days there are too many students, too many classes requiring computers, and not enough classroom space.

Except the occasional mac or ancient computer (and these are becoming less common... and the mac isn't a problem if the mac user is an expert on macs, it's just that we don't support them) it works out very well.
Having worked at large 4-year schools that do it both ways, I would just say, be prepared to put a significant chunk of the costs saved by cutting labs into support for students whose computers are messed up, particularly when you start eliminating non-electronic access to data. Also, you'll need to invest more in wireless saturation and troubleshooting.

The other comments about having some recommended, discounted packages are good. Finding ways to bundle common software for the students is helpful, too.

You'll probably still need some labs for specialized software, etc, although there are (suboptimal) workarounds if everyone has a computer of their own.

Finally, re your comment about faculty who are allergic to all things electronic: that's not the only reason to object to the suspension of paper publications. Even counting in a certain level of entropy of the data, there are some things that just work better on paper. Particularly things you want/need to *browse* rather than *search*. I'm surprised, given your past statements about IT costs, that you would have missed that angle.
Our CC switched to electronic schedules about 2 years ago, but they still print a VERY small number of paper schedule books for those who do advising and scheduling. I feel very elite with my paper copy, haha :)
The students don't seem to mind...

I think it would be great to have all the students have laptops. Just make sure there are enough power outlets to serve all the students in a class. In one of my classes, I brought in a power strip so that I wouldn't trip on all the crazily-angled power cords running around the classroom!
My last year of college, the business school required laptops for certain courses. You didn't exactly know which ones those were, so every business student had to get a laptop. The school allowed students to buy the used laptops we used to have available to classes for a discounted price and offered scholarships if students needed them. I think it is a great idea, but there do need to be minimum requirements based on the class/campus.
I'm at one of those small private colleges(though not by any means elite - avg ACT~26, many students are 1st generation or low-income, etc.) that gives every student an identical laptop. I think it's GREAT. Seems like IT's job is easier because they really get to know this particular laptop and its quirks and problems. As a professor, I never have to be worried about when students have access to info/papers/schedules I post online. Also we can use the laptops in science lab classes to run equipment and those of us who aren't computer experts can still help with certain things because everyone has the same exact computer. (Also I think there's somewhat less theft... everyone has one already.)

Not sure how well this would translate to a CC situation where students are all full-time, etc. But it's been way better than I thought it might be in our situation (we've had it for 10+ years, but I've only been here a couple years.)
Back when I used to work as an Academic Advisor at the local community college, things were just as you described - out of date paper schedules and very limited and crowded computer labs. Furthermore, we often ran out of copies of the printed course schedule, and as a result, Advisors guarded theirs closely. Of course it wasn't just the schedules that were still paper-based at this community college - everything was - and record keeping was... I guess the nice way to put it is that it was a nightmare.

Now I work at a private, not-for-profit, and we're very electronic. The catalog is only available online. The course schedule is only available online. Though we still print paper applications, we've invested a lot in an online application system that the vast majority of prospects seem to enjoy and prefer. Furthermore, all documents we receive (e.g., transcripts) are scanned in and imaged.

As an Academic Advisor, having everything online makes my job _so_ much easier. There will always be the issues of access to computers and the lack of computer skills with some students, but overall I believe it makes the lives of students and staff much easier. Information (e.g., course schedule) can be udpated easily and always be kept accurate. Students can view the information from any place - whether they're at the campus, at home, at work, or sitting in McDonald's with their laptop. It makes advising students over the phone or via email much easier as well. It also makes it easy to serve a student at other than his/her home campus without having to get on the phone and call someone up to find a transcript or FAX a copy of a document to me.
A lot of institutions are doing this nowadays. It helps to standardize specific educational requirements such as: if you use x computer you will be able to review x materials from a specific lecture without any issues "the dog ate my data download..." The University of Mississippi; School of Med requires and has available on their web, computer policy - it's generic enough to allow a variety of computer types, and they recommend specific ones that are as far as I remember are also available through the bookstore.
I don't think you need to mandate laptops if all you need is for them to register for classes - I think you need to require computer access, and this is not something you need to provide in a lab. You should establish minimum specs for computers to be used on campus to guide students in purchasing something.

We were lucky enough to build a new library 8 years ago and when they built it, they had it hardwired to support internet access for the masses (think hundreds of T1 lines). The library checks out laptops to students which they can use on the premises so those without computers can get them free. Students pay a nickel a sheet for printing. We also have wireless access everywhere on campus but it's unreliable and for that reason can't be used during classes in any meaningful way.

My only suggestion would be that if you do install wireless or internet connectivity in each classroom, let the prof have a kill switch to stop random shoe shopping and other absurdities during class. There’s nothing more irritating than having your lecture interrupted by porn.
I've taught at a couple of places that did this, and at others that were very online for classes, too. My one comment is make sure you not only allocate money for hardware support, but for virus/malware support, too. My first semester at one of these schools was a nightmare because of so many students accidently infecting the entire school system with viruses - brought down everything, not just the mail servers!
I agree with all the other comments. The only thing I don't like about the proliferation of laptops on campus is how many students use them in class to ignore class. In a large lecture I can often hear 2-3 students tapping away the whole time, and it's actually mildly irritating. The worst is when these students sit in front of me and chat or browse facebook the whole time. I'm trying to pay attention, but my eyes see a flicker of movement on their screen and are distracted. So I like requiring it, having a standard, and rolling it into financial aid options so long as teachers/professors make clear when it is or is not appropriate to use in class. I used to use mine all the time to take notes for my humanities degree but found it to be completely useless, or only a distraction, when I started engineering.
I'm sure there are many schools that have eliminated paper catalogs without mandating all students purchase laptops. The University of Kentucky is one example of this. Students can easily check on the schedule from the computer lab or from their home computers. It is a huge savings of money and of paper to eliminate the paper catalogs and I agree that is an option to explore further. You don't need to mandate laptop purchasing to make that happen.

I agree with the comments that noted laptops can be a huge distraction in the classroom. I don't see the need to bring on more of that. Also, I'd be mindful that even the lighter laptops can be a lot for students who are already weighted down with heavy backpacks to carry. More laptops also invite more laptop theft.
We don't require laptops, and I don't see any signs of this being an issue in the near future. However, I am familiar with several different places that do require them, and the issues this generates. The biggest one is setting a new standard each fall for the MINIMUM configuration that will be acceptable for the next four years. There is often something like a rolling four year cycle so students do not need to upgrade during their career.

Many of our students have laptops, but some classes are declared laptop free simply to keep the students from failing because they are actually playing Farmville rather than taking notes.

We got rid of paper bulletins quite a while ago. (Could be five years by now.) It does require a bit more hand holding during orientation, and some more during their first on-their-own registration cycle, but that supplies some good part-time work for our better "senior" students. We eased into it with the paper version in parallel with the on-line version for a few years, but in that time period they did not print any "supplement" like I remember from a decade ago. The system has been refined over the years and continues to be refined to best serve our student's needs.
I'm not a fan of mandating laptop ownership in order to justify abandoning computer labs. I am a fan of abandoning computer labs in favor of creating more computer classrooms.

The problem from my perspective is that laptops are simply not as good as comparably priced desktops and therefore you're asking all students to either pay more or sacrifice computing power. Moreover, typing for long periods of time on laptops can be problematic for many people and can cause wrist injuries from the reduced size and angle of the keyboards. Not to mention the pint sized screens, battery issues, power cord failures, theft, and more rapid obsolescence.

The issue of paper is not a problem if, like most schools, you charge the students for the paper. At my school the printers are linked to your bursar account, so you can pay in one bunch at the end of the quarter. This is certainly necessary for students who need to print out something during the day time when they're on campus (potentially far from home) or who don't have a printer of their own (as many of my students in the past have not).

The need to mandate laptops seems counter-intuitive since so many classrooms and teachers are banning laptops from their classrooms. That seems a big disconnect between the institutional perspective you're offering and the teaching perspective that is still deeply suspicious of personal computers.
Just a follow up to the comments that mandating laptops might be counter to the instructor perspective that they are disruptive in class. I think it's possible to have a mandate (and the necessary support) without forcing them to be used in classes. I think instructors should have the right to ban them from their classes if they want. But mandating laptop purchase means that every student has access to a computer, a portable computer they can take home with them on break etc. And that in itself is a good thing, I think. I don't know what my university does about this, but I'm willing to bet professors can make their own rules about what is allowed in class during lecture.
I think it's pretty problematic at CC just because of the one-class-at-a-time students. If I'm an adult student taking one night class at a time on the slow track to an AA, I'll be pretty ticked if I need to buy a new laptop every other year as my old one "ages out" of meeting the requirements, particularly if most of my classes don't actually use them for anything. (This theoretical student probably would use their work desktop to do things like register for classes - my previous employer didn't have a problem with using a work computer for this kind of thing during breaks or before/after work because my field required a certain amount of PD to keep our certifications so it was in their best interest for us to keep on top of it.) You'd need some kind of inexpensive solution for these part-time students or it'd be pretty off-putting for them.

I also think you'd want to have some kind of "listening sessions" with faculty in various disciplines about what kind of programs they want students to be able to use in their classes and what kind of programs they want students to be able to use at home. I know I've taken classes in the use of proprietary software (such as Geometer's Sketchpad) that I wouldn't have taken if I'd had to buy a copy for my personal computer rather than take the class in a computer lab that I could also come into outside of class time to do the homework, for example. (I wanted to learn how to use it and try it out before deciding whether or not to ask my principal to find the money for a site license for our school, so I took a summer class at the local college.) You'd need to figure out how many labs you could really eliminate, and what kind of programs faculty actually want their students using. If it's mostly "ability to type a paper in 12 pt Times New Roman" and "ability to read PDFs", then that's a low bar for laptops. The more technical programs might need more complex software, though.

And yeah, anti-virus software becomes a huge issue if every student is maintaining their own computer for schoolwork and it thus needs to be not broken at all times. You might look into getting a site license for one that would also allow it to be installed on student machines. You might also encourage students to save work to some kind of central server so that if/when they break their own machine it's not an excuse for their paper to be lost.
Can you get Pell grants to cover the cost, maybe with a little sweetener on top for y'all to administer the passing-out?
Even in a low-income area like where my school is, 98% of the students didn't even notice when we stopped printing paper schedules. And the other 2% were coming in in person to do business anyway, so coming in to access the electronic schedule using college resources is an insignificant change to their experience.

Faculty went ballistic, of course, but they always do. The bottom line, however, is students won't even notice, only faculty, and there it's just a matter of convincing those that can be convinced and ignoring those that are determined to be a stumbling block to progress of any sort.
Oh, as to mandatory laptops, that landscape will be changing soon. There's a tablet computer that's about two years away from market that is slightly more powerful than the iPad and has a price point of around $50. Part of why it's so cheap is that it's going to be running the new Google OS (or you can choose Android or easily install Linux if you prefer) which makes all the software free and open source. The hardware is interesting in that it is good quality for use, but cheap and somewhat non-durable. So it will run well but will be sadly easy to break. But is so cheap that it's no problem to buy another one.

Yes, we're about two years away from the disposable tablet computer. That will help ramp up changes to education, IMO.
Dakota State University in Madison, SD.
I'd recommend splitting this topic into a series of posts with a more focused discussion.

You can go to a fully electronic schedule without mandating laptops. We did. You can require the use of a computer for the course (outside of class or for distance web-based classes) without having students try to take down a mathematical derivation on a laptop or while playing Farmville, as "betty" pointed out. You need a modest computer lab to support on-line registration and advising on campus, but that could be more of a scheduling issue than a cost issue, particularly if the faculty have laptops that can be taken to where that is done. Finally, there are more modern alternatives to the "computer lab", ones that turn them into a study center that also has computers and reduce duplication of staffing and effort.
In my (CS) department we used to spend large amounts of money each year buying every incoming graduate student a new workstation. It turned out few actually used them - most just brought their laptops and worked off of them. And furthermore, the amount of power these workstations drew significantly contributed to our skyhigh energy bills.

So we conducted a survey to see how much people actually used their laptops vs. their workstations, and the data really confirmed our suspicions.

You might want to try something similar to test the waters. It's easy and inexpensive to set up an online survey (zoomerang, survey monkey, google forms, etc), and as incentive you can raffle several things off (gift cards, movie tickets, iPods if you're feeling flush).

Advertise the survey to anyone on campus who might be affected (including faculty and staff), and then you can analyze your results based on the needs of different groups. This can be especially enlightening if you have some open-ended questions, because you might discover the labs are being used in ways you never could have predicted and they're worth keeping. (Or vice versa)
I am not against laptop or something but mandating it to be part of the student is not a good idea for me. I have seen the benefits of the different technologies available now in the market and it is a good sign of development. But looking at it in a wider range, students are becoming less concentrated in the studies.
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