Mobile Computing | Feature

Getting Out of the Laptop Giveaway Business

George Fox University CIO Greg Smith discusses top challenges--and their solutions--when adopting mobile computing in higher education.

Ever since laptop computers first made their way onto college campuses, George Fox University of Newberg, OR has been involved in the movement at some level. "It seems like we've been giving laptops to our incoming forever," said Greg Smith, CIO.

In 2010, the school became one of the first in the nation to offer students iPads as an option--a move that Smith said was made "in direct response" to the fact that times are changing and that students want more options. "It was a true signal of the fact that the end is nearing for our laptop program," said Smith, who has tracked a few interesting trends related to the iPad distribution project.

Giving Up 'Control'
For starters, Smith said, the devices need much less support than their predecessors did. The latest program also brought up a new question for the university: Should it stay in the device giveaway business or not, in light of the fact that many students already own iPads?

"Device distribution is an interesting discussion that's hitting many universities right now, and it has left us wondering whether we really need to control this anymore," said Smith. The latter point is of particular interest to Smith, who has seen that "control" transition from a service (in the earlier days of mobile computing) to more of a restriction.

"We just need to allow students to do what they're doing," Smith explained, who added that for most students, a college computer handout ranks as their second or third mobile device. "That wasn't the case a few years ago, when we used to give them their first computer."

The proliferation of smart phones and other mobile devices has also lessened the need for a laptop on campus, said Smith. Already equipped with multiple WiFi-enabled devices, students don't really need another piece of equipment, particularly one that's partly or entirely controlled by their institution of higher education.

Accommodating Mobile Devices
So instead of focusing on equipment giveaways, Smith said, George Fox University is focusing its efforts on beefing up its WiFi network to accommodate all of those devices.

"That's where we'll be throwing most of our dollars (the money saved by not having to buy laptops) this year," said Smith, who pointed to coverage and density as the two biggest issues that the college will be addressing within its wireless network. "We've seen weaknesses within our network, and we'll be working to address them."

Printing is also an issue. Though the volume of paper used on campus is retreating, there are still times when a student or professor will need to print out documents from their laptops and devices. To accommodate those needs, Smith's team increased the number of print stations on campus, allowing students to create documents and forms on their iPads, and then transfer the files to a printer-capable location.

The fact that both students and faculty have found ways to communicate and transfer files electronically has kept traffic at those print stations at rates lower than anticipated. With "cloud" computing on the rise on college campuses, Smith said he expects the urge to print to wane even further.

"In most cases, our faculty members are capable of receiving electronic assignment submissions," said Smith, "thus eradicating the need for printer stations and paper documents."

The printing issue may be solved at George Fox University, an early adopter of mobile computing, but other challenges persist. Smith said one hurdle has been the lack of a cohesive cross-platform operating system for devices. As devices--and the platforms they run on--have proliferated, the challenge has grown, but could soon become a non-point, thanks to the growth of cloud computing.

"In the past, we strove to establish a cohesive platform because it gave us control, and made life easier for students," said Smith, who singled out iOS, webOS, Android, and Chrome as the operating systems with the most potential in the higher education space.

Benefits: Cost Savings and Platform Freedom
With the exception of a few applications that run on specific operating systems (such as complex engineering programs and Apple's iTunes), Smith said, "We may finally be at a point where we really don't have to worry about it anymore."

"While there are still isolated situations where we have to dictate based on certain professional programs," said Smith, "the majority of the activities and communications being conducted by college students are based on sending information back and forth from the Internet."

Along with improving its WiFi density and coverage, George Fox University is also putting money into classroom technology like media production equipment, rich media-enabled devices and wall-mounted flat-panel monitors, all of which Smith expects to help enhance collaboration in class.

"Right now, we're throwing tremendous amounts of resources into this whole idea of video management," said Smith, "with the ultimate goal of developing more collaborative classrooms that are enabled with state-of-the-art technology."

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