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Making it Mandatory

In 1996, Wake Forest University became one of the first U.S. universities to launch a mandatory laptop program to equip undergraduates with notebook computers. Like a number of schools at the time, Wake Forest began its efforts to provide students with an emerging technology platform that the university administration and faculty could use to communicate with students and deliver academic software and digitized forms of instruction. 

 With the costs factored in student tuition, each year roughly 1,200 incoming freshmen receive Lenovo ThinkPad laptops loaded with an impressive 141 programs and applications taking up some 37 gigabytes of hard-drive space. Students as juniors receive new laptops to replace the ones they received as first-year students.

 Dr. Rick Matthews, associate provost for information systems and a professor of physics at Wake Forest, says “one of the principal advantages of the laptop program is that it serves the aspiration for ‘techno-equity’” among students. After dropping the SAT requirement for student applicants a couple of years ago, the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based school has seen a surge in applications from minorities and low-income and working-class students, according to Matthews.

 The laptop program has fulfilled “the idea that every student, regardless of economic means or technical background, would have the tools and the support they needed to reach their full potential. So, we continued to provide a standard laptop to every student,” he says.

 There’s no doubt laptop programs remain important to many institutions, particularly to those that consider social equity an important value in their technology programs. Now, the transition to mobile computing, which puts smaller and often more versatile portable devices in the marketplace, has inspired college and university administrators to consider the potential for adopting these devices as campuswide tools.

 Smartphones, digital tablet PCs or smartpads, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and electronic reader devices constitute the newest wave of digital technology sweeping college and university campuses. These devices can be connected to the Internet and allow students and school staff to perform sophisticated tasks, such as research and reviewing study notes. 

 Smartphones, such as the iPhone, have dazzled consumers with their touch screen interfaces and capacity for downloadable applications, or “apps.” Students have been eager smartphone buyers, and academic institutions have been open to the development of applications that serve instructional and institutional purposes, such as campus maps and academic schedules. There’s tremendous interest in the potential of smartpads and electronic reader devices, such as Amazon’s Kindle device, becoming platforms for electronic versions of textbooks. 

 “(The laptop) has become a commodity platform for the campus. And I think that’s why you’re seeing some innovation in what I call smartpads, like the versions of things from the Apple iPad to the Edge, which is from enTourage, or even first-generation e-readers,” says Lev Gonick, the chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “These are all smartpads, and I think (their makers are) trying to deal with our marketplace in education.”

 Bold Approaches to Information Technology

 Campuswide laptop initiatives have helped put institutions with such programs on a path to seek and experiment with emerging technologies like smartphones and e-readers. After installing a high-speed wireless network in all campus buildings, Wake Forest, for instance, early last decade developed and piloted Windows-based Pocket PC phones as classroom devices for facilitating class quizzes and other interaction between professors and students and maintaining course schedules and campus information.

 The 8-year-old laptop program at historically Black Coppin State University, a largely commuter institution in west Baltimore that is nationally recognized for its information technology infrastructure and innovative technology programs, has put the university on a similar trajectory. To implement its successful program, the university has had to subsidize between 25 and 50 percent of an HP laptop’s cost for low-income students, with the student paying the remaining cost over a period of four semesters, or two years, according to Dr. Ahmed El-Haggan, Coppin State’s vice president of information technology and chief information officer. He says roughly 125 students a year have participated in the laptop subsidy program, which averages $75,000 annually. Coppin State typically raises funds and secures digital divide grants to cover the subsidy costs, El-Haggan says.

 “We’ve distributed more than 1,000 computers to students through our laptop (subsidy) program,” El-Haggan says. “One of the goals we had was that many students would be able to take their laptops home and expose their families to the benefits of having a computer. We’re proud of being able to do that.” 

 After getting a laptop program underway, Coppin State developed a state-of-the-art wireless network on the school’s campus. And within a year’s time, the Intel Corp. recognized Coppin State for having one of the nation’s best college campus wireless systems. Subsequently in October 2005, U.S. News & World Report ranked the school No. 19 in a list of the top 50 colleges and universities in the United States with wireless capability. Several years ago, Coppin State adopted a campuswide system that makes audio recordings of faculty lectures downloadable as podcasts. The move positioned Coppin State among the first wave of U.S. institutions that embraced lecture-capture systems.

 Boasting a highly regarded wireless infrastructure, Coppin State has been well positioned to explore the use of portable smart devices, El-Haggan adds. Coppin State nursing and education students are primarily using iPod Touch devices for test preparation study purposes. The nurses study for the National Nursing Exam using test preparation guide applications of Mosby Review Questions and NurseNotes NCLEX-RN Exam Study Prep. Other applications help the nursing students prepare for clinical and other nursing-related courses such as Kaplan Medical Terms for Nurses and Med Cards. In the education school, students use iPod Touch applications that help them study for the PRAXIS exam, according to El-Haggan.   

 “We hope to expand their use and make the devices more available for classroom use by the coming school year,” El-Haggan says.

 For more than a decade, staff, faculty and administrators at Abilene Christian University in Texas studied the mobile computing environment before committing the institution to the iPhone and iPod Touch in 2008 as a mandated technology for campuswide use. During the 2008 and 2009 fall semesters, Abilene Christian distributed either an iPhone or iPod Touch to all incoming freshmen.

 School officials recently decided the university would extend the initiative to all students this coming fall. ACU has so far funded the device distribution, which averages $250 per device, through campus IT savings realized from computer lab closings. Students have had the option of receiving the iPhone if they agree to a cell phone contract with AT&T or receiving the iPod Touch, which connects to the Internet through the campus Wi-Fi network, according to George Saltsman, director of educational technology at ACU.

 “We’re going to provide an iPhone or iPod Touch to anyone else who doesn’t have a device to get complete saturation,” Saltsman said. “We felt that the advantages were so good and the program was so successful we needed to do what we could to saturate the campus as quickly as possible so that we could really start to leverage the advantage of the mobile devices.”  

 Classroom uses of the Apple devices include faculty polling and quizzing students for immediate feedback on class lectures; student recording of acting and rehearsing tips in theater classes; faculty distribution of podcasts and other digital presentations for immediate student review; faculty distribution of safety protocols and instructions during laboratory sessions; and complex calculating by students in math and science classes.

 Dr. William Rankin, associate professor of English and co-director of ACU’s mobile learning initiative, says the technology team that settled on the iPhone and iPod Touch put the “devices in the hands of 42 faculty before students had any devices and just had people experiment.” Focusing on one technology platform as opposed to several, which many large research universities can handle, proved critical to the ACU’s initiative.

 “We’re not a giant school; we have about 5,000 students and we didn’t have a massive infrastructure of programmers and developers,” Rankin says. “We had seen enough trends toward mobility, and we knew this was the direction we needed to go. But we also knew that if we didn’t centralize on one platform it would take us years and years to get there.”

 Moving Ahead

 Some schools in recent years have dropped mandatory laptop programs, partly in response to students wanting more flexibility in bringing their own computers to campus. According to Student Monitor, a Ridgewood, N.J.-based market research firm, survey results from fall 2009 indicate that 92 percent of U.S. college students owned a computer before their first year in college.

Nonetheless, laptop programs provide students affordable computer ownership options, particularly at campuses with significant numbers of students from low-income and working-class backgrounds.

 “I think laptops are the mainstay … . Most everyone sees their computing device starting with a portable, mobile model,” Gonick says. “The laptop is where they start.”

 At this stage, few campuses have taken the plunge in adopting mobile computing gadgets as campuswide tools. Experts say there’s widespread experimentation taking place from individual classes to academic departments to professional and graduate schools across U.S. higher education, especially with e-readers being considered a potential platform for electronic textbooks. Last fall, the retail company helped conduct pilot tests of its Kindle reader with several institutions, including Case Western Reserve. However, the U.S. Justice Department’s concern over the product’s lack of accessibility for the blind has temporarily put a hold on Kindle’s market tests in higher education. Many schools are expected to watch the Apple iPad’s introduction this spring because the device combines the electronic reader capability with Internet connectivity and computing.

 Lia Schultz, senior consultant for Eduventures, a Boston-based research and consulting firm that specializes in higher education, says it’s a tough environment for companies seeking institutions to commit to any one technology because mobile computing is evolving rapidly. She says institutions should consider their students’ backgrounds when offering new technologies.

 “In regard to new devices, it’s important to think about student segments. The wealthier students are coming to campus with their own technology. Campuses serving a high percentage of low-income students might have a great opportunity to roll out certain technologies,” Schultz says. “A typical undergraduate population is so diverse. On any given campus, you’ve got a range of family incomes and a range of majors. It’s challenging to satisfy an entire undergraduate cohort and faculty with the same device.” 

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