Hardware & Software :: Laptop Programs
No Digital Divide
- By Rama Ramaswami
Universities partner with vendors to offer creative instruction, close IT gaps.
AS LAPTOPS AND TABLET PCs become
ubiquitous in universities across the country,
the connections between colleges and
hardware/software vendors are growing in
depth and complexity. For manufacturers,
these alliances offer a chance to share technical
expertise and gain useful feedback for
product development; for universities, they
are becoming a matchless way to gain
access to state-of-the-art technology, provide
valuable learning experiences for both
students and faculty, and advance technology
A Three-Way Partnership
At Winona State University (MN), a public
institution with 8,000-plus students, the
relationship between the college and its
tablet PC program partner, Gateway, is "very close," according
to Ken Graetz, WSU's director of
eLearning. "We're not interested in just
being a customer," he says. "We want to be a partner, to
learn more about one-to-one computing. Working with
vendors to do that has been very beneficial."
Since 2005, WSU has required all full-time students to
have university-issued laptops. The school partners with
both Gateway and Apple, and students
can choose either a Mac or PC platform. The tablet models
offered are Gateway's M275E and M285E. Each
tablet comes with a standard software suite that includes
Microsoft Office, e-mail, web
browsers, and antivirus applications. Full-time students
can lease the machines for a minimum of one year, at a
cost of $500 per semester ($1,000 for the academic
year). And a two-year refresh cycle ensures that students
have access to the most up-to-date devices.
Graetz notes that one-to-one computing requires specific
modifications to the equipment, to enable students to
use it more effectively in a particular discipline. For example,
the functionality of a tablet model may need to be
tweaked for a technical course such as engineering. Gateway
has been willing to work with WSU to make those
changes, he says, and in turn has incorporated those features
into subsequent models. "Gateway listens to us in
terms of developing new products, and has made
changes to its products based on our feedback," explains
Graetz. "It's a three-way partnership between educators,
students, and the technology vendor."
Another institution with an equally close vendor-school
relationship is Grove City College (PA). The tech-savvy,
private four-year institution mandates the use of tablet PCs
by both its students and faculty, and has invested in mobile
technology since 1994, when it partnered with Compaq,
then an independent manufacturer, to provide students
with laptops (the computers are given to all incoming freshmen). About four years ago, the school switched to
tablet PCs from Hewlett-Packard, which
acquired Compaq in 2002. Current HP models in use by
faculty and students include the PC4200, PC4400, and
TC1100. All hardware and software is completely replaced
every four years, although some older equipment may find a
home in, for instance, a language lab, which does not
require the most advanced technology.
Vince DiStasi, GCC's CIO and VP of IT, boasts that
because the school has had a commitment to mobile technology
for so many years, technology is part of the community
mindset. "The technology is so ingrained, nobody
thinks about it," he says. "There's no digital divide. All our
students get a tablet PC, printer, scanner, and copier. It's
not optional." Granted, DiStasi admits that GCC's relatively
small student body makes it easier to provide more of the
latest technology as well as monitor precisely how well it's
working. "With 2,500 students, you can really get your
hands around technology."
The partnership with HP is "going extremely well," he
adds. "We consider HP leaders in this technology, and very
reliable. We benefit from HP's expertise, from knowing and
interacting with its engineers. They ask for our input, and
they get feedback from us, which they put into their products."
Overall, he says, HP is able to help GCC "think digitally,"
and incorporate more technology into the curriculum.
"We want to be a partner, to learn more about
one-to-one computing. Working with vendors to do
that has been very beneficial."
-Ken Graetz, Winona State University
And although reliable hardware is critical, it isn't enough to
seal the deal with a vendor, points out DiStasi. "You've got to
look at the whole package-that's key. You can't invest in laptops
without a solid back end." In the case of Grove City College,
that back end, under agreements with Microsoft and
HP, includes tech support, a 48-hour turnaround on on-site
repairs, and other services such as reformatting hard drives-
all of which supplement GCC's own IT support staff.
Support Is Key
A vendor's commitment to support and intimate involvement
in a university's needs are vital to a successful partnership,
according to Brent Jones, director of IT at Morehead State
University (KY). The college does not require its roughly
9,000 students to use laptops or tablets, but strongly encourages
participation in the university's laptop leasing program;
this past year, the tablet PC offered was Gateway's M280E.
Each machine has a two-year lifecycle, at the end of which the
student has the option to purchase by paying the PC's residual
value. Machines not bought by students are sold for surplus
after warranty expiration, or transferred to public K-12
schools or state programs such as Kentucky's No Child Left
Jones emphasizes that the availability of support was a key
consideration in the university's selection of a vendor. "For
higher education, it is critical to select a partner who can
add value to the laptop or tablet PC program, as opposed
to selecting a vendor based on price alone," he says. "A
manufacturer-sponsored, in-house repair program is important
to the success of a student laptop program, as is having
a vendor that is responsive to needs and issues that may
arise." Lack of support can prevent students from using a laptop
to optimal advantage; if technical problems are not solved
quickly and easily, students are less likely to understand and
benefit from a laptop's features.
In addition, vendor-sponsored laptop/tablet programs
"offer a cost-effective way of placing the latest technology into
the hands of students," says Jones. "Volume pricing agreements
allow universities to obtain laptops or tablets at a much
better price than students could get on the open market." The
university passes on those savings-amounting to 15 to 20
percent-to the student, and a lower price means that more
students are able to lease or purchase the machines.
THE AVAILABILITY OF a manufacturer-sponsored, in-house repair program was a key consideration in Morehead State's selection of a vendor for its laptop/tablet program.
Partnerships can also support a standardization of technology;
a welcome solution to the problem of IT integration.
Controlling hardware choices enables universities to run
unified IT shops that are increasingly coming to resemble
commercial IT departments-a comparison that GCC's
DiStasi makes. "It's really like running IT in a company," he
says. "It's not going to be Macs versus PCs versus Linux-
we've standardized the products. We don't want to buy
consumer devices; we buy commercial machines because
they're more stable. All the machines we buy are on the
enterprise side. They all have the same parts, the same
docking stations. That reduces our total cost of ownership."
Standardization benefits students as well as the university,
Morehead State's Jones points out. Students' personal
laptops do not afford the same benefits as the campus-supplied
machines, he says: "Often, students do not understand
the difference between personal and business-class
machines, and make purchase decisions based on cost
alone. Acquiring a tablet PC through our campus program
ensures a student will get a high-quality machine and have access to on-site repair facilities. Quick turnaround
is vital when the student depends on the tablet PC
for homework and classes." In addition, says Jones,
using a laptop that the college provides ensures
that the machine is loaded with the correct software
and integrates properly with other campus
resources such as the wireless network.
Laptops in classrooms have come under fire
recently as some educators question their value
as educational tools. "We're starting to get a little
pushback from faculty in terms of laptop usage in
class," says WSU's Graetz. "The perception is
that the students are IMing, surfing the web,
shopping. Schools are under pressure to show
that laptops are being used productively in class."
Creative applications can come to the rescue by
enabling collaboration and flexibility in class content. For
example, both Winona State and Grove City use DyKnow
Vision, a learning tool from DyKnow that enables collaborative note-taking, annotation, content
replay, and instant student response. "Today's students
don't tend to take notes very well," says DiStasi of Grove
City College, but since a tablet is adaptable, a student can
interface with the technology in whatever way suits his or
her learning style, whether that be via typing, writing, or a
mix of the two. The DyKnow tool adds to that flexibility:
Instructors can embed audio and/or video into a presentation,
to help reach visual and auditory learners, and students
who are tactile learners can use the tablet PC pen to
add their own notes to the lecture content.
"We've standardized: All the machines we buy have
the same parts, the same docking stations. That reduces
our total cost of ownership." -Vince DiStasi, Grove City College
According to Graetz, versatility was the reason Winona
State switched from conventional laptops to convertible
tablets in 2004. He adds, "The early slate-only models of
tablets didn't work at all; the students needed to be able to
type up term papers as well as take notes in class." Like
DiStasi, he believes that powerful software can best exploit
the potential of the hardware. With DyKnow Vision, he says,
he can pull up the work of a student in real time and show it
to the rest of the class. "That work becomes part of everyone
else's notebook. It's interesting collaborative technology that
we anticipate will be used in math, chemistry, statistics. It's all
about finding ways to make that tablet investment valuable."
That includes ways to ensure that students are actually
using the machines properly in class. Graetz, for example,
uses DyKnow Monitor, an application specifically designed
to enable instructors to see students' screens as they are
working, and to disable certain applications if necessary.
The monitoring increases student accountability and
encourages more active participation in the classroom.
Ultimately, the way instructors use laptop or tablet PC
technology determines the extent to which student learning
occurs. For now, the news is upbeat. "Having a laptop or
tablet does enhance student learning-often in ways one
did not expect," says Morehead State's Jones. "After implementing
our program, we observed that students were
forming ad hoc study workgroups in common areas with
their tablet PCs and wireless access," he notes. "Significant
learning takes place outside the classroom, and it is
important to view the laptop/tablet PC as more than just a
replacement for a PC in a lab. Portability, distance learning
technology, and wireless access enable modes of learning
that were not possible just a few years ago."
White Paper: Mobility Initatives on Campus Learn more about how notebook and tablet computers
are helping to enhance learning and attract students at
four different colleges and universities.
-Rama Ramaswami is a business and financial journalist
based in New York City.