Monday, February 17, 2014


Tech Mandates with Part-Time Students

Has anyone out there seen a reasonably elegant solution to the issue of mandating technology for part-time students?

My campus is starting to make actual, discernible headway towards more widespread use of Open Educational Resources (OER) in place of commercial textbooks. It’s still a small movement, but it’s growing quickly, and it has enthusiastic support across faculty, staff, administration, and students.  The idea is to take advantage of the increasingly quantity of high-quality open-access material, both to save students money and to allow faculty greater autonomy in how they structure courses.  (When you require your students to spend 200 dollars on a textbook, there’s a moral obligation to actually use the thing.  When it’s free, you can be much more cavalier in how you use it.)  OER also tends to be accessible for students with disabilities right from the start, so there’s no time lost in tracking down alternative editions or, worse, scanning pages and converting them.  It offers the promise of a truly accessible, level playing field.

Naturally, there’s a catch.  

Most of these materials are available electronically, which means that students need the means with which to access them.  (A few are optionally available in print form, but most aren’t, unless you print them yourself.)  Since the “open” in OER refers, in part, to platforms, there’s no need to be brand-specific about what they use.  Ipads are great, but laptops work, and so could android tablets, chromebooks, kindles, or even some of the larger phones.  (I refuse to use the word “phablet.”  It’s just awful.)  Some of those choices are much cheaper than they used to be, so a tech purchase could conceivably pay for itself within a couple of classes.  If we specify the minimum capacities, I think -- and I’m open to correction on this point -- that we could assess some sort of materials fee for it that financial aid would accept.  

But that’s where I’m struggling.  A new chromebook, say, can be had for under 300 dollars.  If you’re doing a full degree, and you’re able to use the chromebook for most of your texts as well as writing papers, then you’re getting a screaming deal.  But if you’re just taking a few classes, and you only have OER for one or two of them, I’m not sure you’re actually coming out ahead.  And that’s before looking at charges for internet access.  We have wifi on campus, though it’s hard to keep up with constantly growing demand as students bring more, and more ambitious, devices.  

We have some open labs for student use, but they’re necessarily limited, particularly at moments of peak demand.  They’re also pretty inhospitable places to do your reading.  They serve a purpose, and I’m glad they’re there, but I don’t see them as the entire answer.

So wise and worldly readers, I’m hoping to draw on your collective wisdom.  Have you seen a way around this dilemma that results in genuine savings for students, a level playing field across income levels and disability status, and good choices for faculty?

Kindle Fires are available for close to $100 these days (the low-end or previous model versions). The used electronics market is huge and has great deals available. There are businesses out there that make money by taking in older electronics, fixing them up (new batteries, fixing cracks, etc.) and selling them that seem to do well and have low-priced gadgets for sale. Maybe partner with one of them as sort of the tech-take on the old used book market at the bookstore. Just thinking...
I don't know if the linux-based computers used in the One Laptop per Child program (see model XO-1 article at Wikipedia) are available commercially for this kind of situation. (See also the manufacturer's site.) Perhaps something like that could work? I've been curious about them as replacement laptops for students with few resources, though I've never looked into it much.
Depending on the level of need, it might be possible to contract with a local print shop to make paper copies for students who want them on demand. If the volume is high, costs could be around 5 cents per page plus a few dollars for a binder. But, this raises organizational complexity.
Anonymous 3:09 AM's comment was something that I was going to say. I know OpenStax has print copies of all their textbooks available, not necessarily cheap-cheap, but far less expensive than comparable major-publisher texts.

But how much is it a matter of simply reading, and how many interactive tools are coming with a given OER? You'll have trouble if the student can't put themselves in position to actually do interactive exercises online...again, like DD says, there are open labs in place darn near everywhere, but that's no assurance that you'll have those open labs available when the part-timers need them...

...unless you allowed students with designated need the capacity to schedule lab time, as part of the class?

I don't know. Tossing against wall, seeing what sticks.
The basic Ubislate costs $40, and is equivalent to the first-generation iPad. That would pay for itself very quickly.
In the older days, one could visit the campus library, and put a dime in a box to rent typewriter time. Perhaps the modern option would be for the school to purchase x number of tablets for students to check out/borrow. If it is not returned, the student would then be billed for the replacement charge.
I mentioned this the last time you brought up this topic, but I didn't see you mention any data on the size of the problem you are trying to solve. Have you done a survey to find out what fraction of your students already have something that can be used to read an OER textbook?

My data say the problem is small and getting smaller every year, provided you are talking about a resource that is not tied to a particular platform or tailored to a particular o/s. In other cases, like some proprietary homework or "learning management" systems, you can be dealing with a nightmare if they assume you will use a big screen desktop and you are using it on a phone.

Your survey would tell you what your students have, and then you can insist that vendors support all of those options.

And consider the option of a text that is more like a reference manual for the subject than something so detailed that reading it is like going to class.
To do a Comarade PhyioProf, do you know what a fucking textbook for a single course costs these days?

A cheap laptop/kindle whatever is less than that
I can see that you are putting a lot of efforts into your blog. Keep posting the good work.Some really helpful information in there. Nice to see your site.

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Bilal Hussain

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