Mobile Computing | Feature

Laptops All Around! Now What?

So you've decided to give tablets and laptops to all your students and faculty. Now how do you support that? Pennsylvania's Seton Hill University backs up its newly expanded mobile computing program, now consisting of both Apple MacBook Pros and iPads for students and faculty, with a robust support structure modeled after AppleCare.

When Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA launched its freshmen laptop distribution program in 2009, the institution's IT team didn't just match the Apple MacBook Pros up with their new owners and hope for the best. Knowing that many universities struggle to provide adequate "service after the sale" on technological equipment, the school took an active stance on the issue.

That meant hiring two new IT staff members (bringing the total IT staff to 14 people) to man the school's help desk, which is based on the AppleCare program created by the equipment manufacturer itself. Through it, students receive service and support products for their Apple hardware, operating systems, and built-in applications. "We had to get three staff members certified to provide the level of care that we now offer on campus," said Phil Komarny, vice president for information technology.

"We do first-level support, and we also have a direct affiliation with an inside rep at Apple," Komarny continued. "If we have anything that we can't fix, the equipment goes right over to Apple and comes back fixed." The school also runs a loaner program, "so that students don't ever have to go without their technology," he said.

Funding and Training
The services come at a price for students, who pay a technology fee of $1,000 per year (based on two payments of $500 per semester) to support the infrastructure and service center. In exchange for the fee, students get both an iPad and a MacBook to use until their junior year in college, at which point they turn in the original equipment for new versions of both devices.

"They can leave with one of the devices when they graduate," said Komarny. "For the fees paid, students get a lot of technology and support while they attend school, and then leave with a 2-year-old machine. We think it's a pretty good deal."

Originally, Komarny said Seton Hill's laptop giveaway program spun out of a Title III grant that was used to innovate new technology at the faculty level. The funding was used to create a "virtual academy" where professors were educated on new advancements like the iPad, iPod touch, podcasting, and related technologies. About 25 staff members completed the academy program in 2008, with another 25 finishing in 2009.

"With so many faculty members already trained on the technology, and with no equipment upgrades taking place over the previous four or five years," said Komarny, "it seemed like a good time to integrate the [laptop program] at the student level."

Originally, students could select from a MacBook, iPhone, or iPod touch. When the company rolled out its iPads, Komarny said, the school saw "an opportunity to be the pioneers in using that new technology," so the program changed over to its current "MacBook and iPad" format. The devices, which were initially handed out only to incoming freshmen, were distributed with the notion that the entire student body would be equipped within a four-year period.

But after meeting with faculty and students to discuss the program and its potential, Komarny realized that the four-year timeline was too long, and that it wouldn't help the university achieve its technology goals. "We ended up offering the program to the rest of the university that first year," he explained. "It was expanded from 300 incoming students to the entire student body."

Komarny said the early expansion decision has paid off for the college. "The faculty has taken to the devices and integrated them into the classroom in ways we didn't even foresee," he said. Today, about 800 students are using the MacBooks, and all 1,850 full-time students have iPads.

Challenges and Future Plans
Thanks to the additional staff members and support from Apple, Komarny said, running the campus-wide laptop program hasn't put much additional strain on his department. Early on, he said he did run into some operating system issues with the iPads, all 1,850 of which were procured via a single order, and not long after the product was introduced to the public.

"We submitted one of the first big orders that Apple had for the devices, and received them so early that they had the old version of the operating systems on them," said Komarny. "There was no easy way to put the new version on them other than issuing new devices, or having users themselves go to iTunes to update the OS."

An Apple developer, Komarny said Seton Hill's IT team is currently working on a few new projects, none of which have been revealed publicly yet. "We're developing some neat social interaction tools for the [iPad] to enhance classroom learning," said Komarny. "We're working on something big that should be released in the new few weeks."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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