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Lyon's 1:1 Laptop Program Aims To 'Level the Playing Field' for Students

This fall Lyon College, a four-year liberal arts school in Arkansas, will join the elite ranks of post-secondary institutions offering laptops to all incoming freshmen. The program is part of a larger initiative, called "The Lyon Experience," which aims to bring "additional value to the education" the school provides.

Extending The Lyon Experience
To date, The Lyon Experience has included the creation of a fully wireless campus (at a time when few others had done so); an institution-supported study-abroad program; and a program the college describes as an "experiential transcript," which documents student achievements outside the classroom and is aimed at helping students with job placement after graduation.

Add to that now the state's first college 1:1 laptop program, which includes Lenovo ThinkPad R61 laptops "fully loaded" with software for instruction and extracurricular activities. The stated aim of the program is to provide "a student-centered, experience-rich liberal arts education for the 21st century."

"The program builds upon a decade of continuous investment in technology in general, and our network in particular, and is part of our regular efforts to add additional value to the education that we provide," said Lyon College President Walter Roettger. "We know that computing and information technology play increasingly important roles in student success both while they are in college as well as later on in their careers."

The 1:1 Initiative
To backtrack a little, 1:1 laptop programs (i.e., programs in which institutions provide a laptop for each student) have been one of the major trends in K-12 education for several years now, with varying degrees of success. The idea has been to provide technology to students who might not otherwise have access, to establish common hardware and software standards for students at home and in school, and effectively to extend the school day by ensuring students have the tools they need for electronic/distance learning. To these ends, districts have rolled out laptops in some cases to tens of thousands of students all at once, while some have taken more modest approaches.

In higher education, however, these types of initiatives are not so widespread. It's estimated right now that less than 5 percent of colleges and universities--somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 higher education institutions total--have a 1:1 laptop initiative in place. And, according to Roettger, no other college in Arkansas offers such a program.

Said Roettger, "Our students use information technology to communicate with faculty, staff, and peers, to conduct research, and to connect with off-campus sites. This program will level the playing field by ensuring that all our students have equal access to these critical resources, and we believe that it will contribute to a more technology-savvy, computer proficient graduate."

He told us the program was initially proposed by Lyon Director of Information Services Charles Neal as recently as spring 2007. Following discussions with academic departments and the college's board, the final decision was made in February 2008 to move forward with the program for several reasons: an expectation to benefit from hardware standardization, an imperative to graduate students with a higher level of technical proficiency, and (not incidentally) a hope to generate interest among prospective students with perceived added value.

"There's been a lot of excitement among prospective students and their parents since we announced this program," Roettger said. "It makes a strong statement about our commitment to learning technology--something that our parents and students hold in high regard."

Lyon, as we mentioned, is a smaller college, with a total enrollment of about 500 students. About 150 freshmen will arrive in the fall, so nearly a third of the entire student body will receive laptops at that time. The program will continue each year so that, within about four years, the entire student body will be equipped.

Considerations: Leasing, Support, Maintenance, Configurations
How can a small college roll out such an ambitious technology program, one in which funding, support, and maintenance requirements may place a heavy demand on the institution? It's all a matter of prioritization, according to Roettger--not to mention establishing the right partnership to help ensure the success of the program.

For Lyon's initiative, the college partnered with CDW-G and leased the ThinkPads, with the expectation of refreshing the laptops every two years. In the event of maintenance issues with individual laptops, Lyon is maintaining a pool of ThinkPad loaner units that can be checked out by students. CDW-G is also providing warranty service on the units and is training Lyon's Information Services department on maintaining the laptops.

For data and physical protection, the laptops include an integrated fingerprint reader and hard drive shock protection, along with durability features like metal hinges and "roll cages."

In terms of configuration, the units include integrated Web cams, Bluetooth, wireless cards, a suite of productivity software, and campus e-mail software.

All of these considerations--funding, support, and maintenance--may seem daunting, but Roettger said he believes in the potential of the program to improve the educational experience of the students and to provide those students with tools that might otherwise prove a financial burden to them.

"We believe that this is a question of priorities," Roettger said. "We know that many of our incoming students purchase laptops during the period following high school graduation and prior to enrolling in college. Our program provides them with a laptop that has a broad range of capabilities while giving them the benefit of our bulk purchasing ability. So, for many, if not most of them, this may actually reduce the cost of preparing to come to college. The timing became right once we once we understood the one-to-one experiences that other institutions had, and after we were satisfied that our wireless coverage on campus was reliable."

We will follow up on Lyon College's 1:1 laptop initiative after the rollout. In the meantime, you can find out more by visiting Lyon's site here or by visiting the college's information page on The Lyon Experience here.

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