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?