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 The schedule is obsolete from the minute it’s out, since changes are ongoing.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?