Hardware & Software :: Laptop Programs

No Digital Divide

Strengthening Authentication

Universities partner with vendors to offer creative instruction, close IT gaps.

Hardware & Software 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 research.

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."

Sharing Knowledge

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 Offline.

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.

Gold Standards

Hardware & Software

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.

Productivity-Enhancing Software

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."

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-Rama Ramaswami is a business and financial journalist based in New York City.

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