Universal Standardized Notebook Computers

by Ray Brown

A posting to the AAHESGIT Listserver

As a representative of two North Dakota institutions, Mayville State University and Valley City State University, that are also implementing notebook computer initiatives, I'd like to offer some observations regarding universal access to technology. In our case, it was a faculty-led initiative and not one that was imposed due to pressure from a corporation. We went through an extensive planning process that began five years ago. There was a benefit from proximity to the U. of Minn.-Crookston. Even with the pressures of being the first campus implementing the Thinkpad U. concept, their faculty, students and administrators were always helpful. Ultimately, though our decision was made by and for faculty who felt they needed certain capabilities in their classrooms.

On our campuses, the fundamental issue was the recognition that the prevailing technology model for higher education is no longer working. If knowledge of current technology is a basic tool for learning and success in the workforce, then every student and employee deserves access to the hardware and software. It doesn't have to be provided by the institution, but there are certain efficiencies for everyone involved if there can be a group decision on certain key issues. Without agreement, the group can find itself in an increasingly frustrating situation.

We didn't believe that it was educationally responsible to only provide one general education computer literacy course in the freshman year. It was not acceptable to allow some lucky majors or faculty access to current technology while others stumbled along using less powerful systems. We wanted to reduce student frustration associated with labs that were tied up for instruction from early in the morning until late in the evening with classes. We are training the future leaders of our communities and the public schools and our graduates could only provide the necessary leadership if they were comfortable with the prevailing tools. Without some radical change, we are doomed to a frustrating future.

With [our educational] replacement cycles of seven to ten years and the rate of change in the market somewhere between one and two years, something had to change. There would be no way for us to exert consistent political pressure over time or write grants fast enough to secure the kind of funding necessary to meet faculty and public expectations. Continuing to rely on one-time funding for acquisition of equipment and the trickle-down of machines was resulting in a support and training nightmare.

Our solution was to work aggressively with students and faculty to define necessary technology capabilities and then seek a sustainable solution. That work brought us quickly to seeing the benefits of leasing notebooks and committing to a single hardware and software standard on the campuses. Students were, and remain, a critical element of the transition. In campus discussions we were very honest about resource issues and talked with students and parents about the implications of the constraints we faced. Students were able to communicate their thoughts and feeling directly to the administration throughout the period leading up to the decision to proceed.

And students remain deeply involved during the implementation of the concept. Our entire Help Desk operation is directed by an employee who graduated last year. He supervises a staff of students who were entirely responsible for preparing, distributing and maintaining the notebooks on which the campus depends. Dozens of students were involved over the summer as we wired and converted classrooms.

We believe the effort is a success. Since we are in the first year, there is no conclusive evidence concerning impact on learning or employment. We are collecting data of various sorts and in a few years will be in a position to speak with some authority on those issues. At this point, we can say that the level of communication between faculty and students and among students is much more extensive. Students have 24- hour access to the software and network resources of the campus and beyond. We know that we will be able to upgrade all hardware and software to a new standard every two years. We know that user support capabilities are diffused across an entire campus community rather than resting on one or two individuals. Any faculty member can walk into any class, no matter what the size, assuming that they can log onto the network or work with whatever document or images makes sense at the moment.

I see the academic use of the notebooks every day in walking the halls. Many of the normal constraints and frustrations facing an instructor are memories rather than realities. It does not mean that everyone is glued to a computer. It does mean that faculty and students can use the technology where it is appropriate to enhance what they were already doing and doing well.

I offer a couple of observations about the need to "prove" our model works. The use of notebook computers is not the only change imposed. Even ignoring societal changes over which we have little control, we are actively changing the focus of campus conversations from teaching to learning, from teacher to student responsibility for documenting learning, from quantifiable inputs to measurable outputs, from passive to active learning, and from isolation of the campus to an active pursuit of partnerships with public schools and the communities we serve. These are not unique discussions on our campuses, neither are they unique to notebook campuses. They are, however, greatly facilitated when everyone can use the same powerful software and communications tools for conversation, access to information, or storage/retrieval of data or video. Students are doing different things from what was possible just a year ago. They are working in groups, preparing complicated presentations, sending e-mail to faculty, administrators, and each other. They are serving on campus committees and taking an active role in governance and decision making in ways that would not have been dreamed of in the recent past.

What does it all mean? I don't know if I can predict three months or six months down the road. The implications of the capabilities are unfolding every day when faculty and students walk into classrooms.

The changes have created stress and work and there are new frustrations replacing old frustrations. In some sense the bottom line is that faculty and students have new power and control their learning. There is excitement and satisfaction with the capabilities. Student retention rates are at record levels for the institutions, in spite of significant cost increases.

I came home from the CAUSE conference last week more strongly convinced that we are implementing a more rational model than the current situation which is prevalent across the country. In one particular session, Martin Ringle, CIO at Reed College, summarized computer support data collected from twenty-five campuses over the last five to seven years. He described a situation where there has been a significant increase in resources devoted to support. Yet, user satisfaction is dropping rapidly. Stress levels and turnover among support providers is rising rapidly. Very few institutions have either the necessary leadership or financial planning in place to make strategic changes in what they are doing. Few campuses have technology plans, much less replacement plans. It was, and is, a pretty bleak picture.

Ringle summarized the strategies on the campuses for meeting the challenges: reallocation of $'s; increasing the $ devoted to staff development; outsourcing; distributed staffing across various campus departments; and, reduced services. Obviously, these are incremental strategies in a world that requires new models and processes.

The issue of waiting to disseminate information without reporting any real results is interesting. It seems that people need to know that alternatives exist to the prevailing pattern. We are public institutions, as is UM-C. We benefited from UM-C's willingness to share their insights, problems and frustrations. I would hate to be waiting for UM-C's conclusive research. We saw enough to make a rational and professional decision to change something that wasn't working to try something different. If people visit, call or e-mail, we'll provide all the details of our path to this point. In the meanwhile, our students are not waiting in line to gain access to a few computers in a lab. They are free to use them wherever or whenever it is convenient for them to do so.

In terms of expense, the cost falls directly on the students and parents. As with all purchases, there is always a benefit calculation that is weighed against the cost incurred. How do you quantify universal access? What is 24-hour access worth? Ultimately, this is not an easy issue for traditional research to answer. My guess is that it can only be answered and will only be answered in the marketplace. When students and parents believe they are not getting value for the cost, they will tend to select other institutions or other routes to the learning that they desire.

For most students and parents, they pay more money as institutions try to expand and upgrade labs and support services. They also typically end up buying their own personal computers to find the access that is ultimately not provided by those same institutions.

Part of the beauty of our model is that we can change course quickly when the future arrives and we find a need to move in a different direction. We are not anchored to six or more generations of hardware and software that must all be supported. We are providing access to current technology--to all students -- all day -- from any place.

Ray Brown, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Mayville State University and Valley City State University