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?