Developing and Implementing
a Pilot Laptop Program

UCF-Dell Laptops in the Classroom Conference
February 2, 2000

William F. Moss 1
College of Engineering and Science
Clemson University
Clemson, South Carolina USA


Pedagogy First
Prerequisites for a Successful Pilot
Planning for Expansion


In the fall of 1998, 105 Clemson engineering and science freshmen brought a prescribed Dell Latitude CPi laptop and software load to campus and matriculated in a minimum of three special courses taught in newly renovated classrooms. These classrooms provide a technology lectern for the instructor and power and network connections at the student tables. In the fall of 1999, 125 freshmen participated in the second year of this program using the Dell Latitude CPt. The College of Engineering and Science Pilot Laptop Program is an experimental study of the use of mobile computing in support of an active learning model of instruction. The goals of this program include improvement in teaching and learning, retention rate, written and oral communication skills, team building skills, curriculum integration, and quantity and quality of applicants. Our challenge is to assess the value of this environment to meeting these goals. This paper summarizes what we have learned about program implementation. For more details see the References for more details.

Pedagogy First

There are at least a dozen reasons why a pilot laptop program is a worthwhile experiment. In this day and age the call for the use of technology in education is coming from diverse groups. Teachers at all levels are saying consider pedagogy first. At many schools innovators are hammered with statements like "the research is not yet in" or the "longitudinal studies have not been completed." Yes, these statements are correct. Pilot laptop programs are part of a set of experiments being conducted worldwide to determine the effect of technology on teaching and learning. They are bold experiments often conducted in the face of a good deal of opposition to changes in the traditional modes of instruction.

The big news of the electronic age is the enhancement of communication. As a consequence, employers are now telling us that they are looking first at the communication skills of potential employees, written and oral, and they are also looking at team building skills. Five years ago, they were telling us that content knowledge was number one. While still in the top five, content knowledge has moved down the list. When fully integrated into the curriculum, a laptop can greatly enhance all types of communication. At Clemson we say that our pilot laptop program is an experimental study of the use of mobile computing in support of an active learning model of instruction. By active learning, we mean anything other than the traditional 50 minute talking head combined with practice in stenography. We are experimenting with cooperative learning and we regard our classrooms as studios rather than lecture halls. Student-student, student-instructor, and student-expert communication is a big part of what we are doing. You will have an opportunity at this conference to hear more about this from another one of our laptop faculty, Barbara Weaver.

Before implementing a pilot laptop program, talk to your faculty about the enhancements to pedagogy that are possible. Get them excited about experimenting with new modes of teaching and learning.

Prerequisites for a Successful Pilot

A champion at the dean's level or above can rally faculty and staff support and can appoint a laptop committee to develop a plan and write a proposal for funding.

The laptop committee must develop a broad vision of the needs of the program and write a proposal for funding which includes the following items.

A laptop program manager is the focal point for the project. This individual typically will perform the following tasks.

A bullet proof laptop provided by a vendor who will provide a service agreement is a necessity. This service agreement should include a schedule for the following.

In addition, the service agreement can include

Minimally the campus network must extend into the classrooms and dorm rooms used by laptop students, and into the offices of laptop faculty. Students and faculty must be able to reliability connect to the network in different locations without reconfiguring their machines. With the approval of the IEEE 802.11 wireless standard in the fall of 1999, the possibility of using wireless networking has greatly expanded.

Students and faculty must have faith in technology in order to use it effectively. If their laptops do not have a high percentage of up-time, a laptop program will soon lose its appeal. The goal of the helpdesk and repair center is to strive for 100% up-time. In most cases, this means that a user must leave the helpdesk with a functioning machine that contains his data. Minor problems such as a loose keycap can be handled in a matter of minutes. Problems requiring longer repair times will likely (depending on the user's needs) necessitate swapping the user's hard drive into a spare machine and the reverse swap when the repair has been completed. Fortunately, laptop hard drives are very reliable.

In addition to access to campus e-mail and web services, laptop students and faculty need a course management system to facilitate communication within their courses and between courses in cases of curriculum integration. At Clemson we are using WebCT along with a homegrown system called the CLE.

Faculty development is often taken to mean teaching faculty how to make web pages and how to put course materials into a course management system. This is certainly a first step, but it is likely to be one already taken by laptop faculty. New laptop faculty need workshops which present the successes and failures of other laptop programs, along with suggestions for fully integrating the laptop into the curriculum. In addition, faculty may need guidance in the use of cooperative learning strategies which lend themselves well to a laptop environment. Curriculum development should be the focus of the faculty. Through workshops, colloquium talks, and brown-bag lunches, laptop faculty need to share their successes and failures with each other. There are by now several mature laptop programs, such as the ones at Wake Forest University, Seton Hall University, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. The faculty and staff of these programs represent a source of expertise. In addition, there is a growing number of laptop conferences.

Early on a program assessment committee should be appointed. Assessment can take several forms: periodic surveys, critical incident interviews, and a longitudinal study of a laptop group and a control group.

Planning for Expansion

Major hurdles to expanding from a pilot program to a college-wide or university-wide program include acceptance by the faculty of the laptop approach to teaching and learning and willingness of the administration to renovate dorm rooms and classrooms.

Schools with a small, young faculty will not have much trouble convincing them to try something new but larger schools typically have a high percentage of "late adopters" who are hard to convince. Laptop programs need champions in high places. Of course, there is always the bribe. By offering faculty a laptop, faculty development workshops, and technology assistance (hand holding), much of the opposition can be removed.

Schools are continually renovating classrooms and building new ones. The smart classroom has become a standard in the last five years so there should be no argument about that. Providing a port per pillow in dormitories has also become fairly standard in the last five years. What is less clear is whether we should provide network access to students in the classroom and if so, how to do it.

With the approval of the IEEE 802.11 standard for wireless networking in September 1999, three Ethernet drops in the ceiling should be added to the specifications for smart classrooms on all campuses. These drops will allow the placement of up to three wireless Access Points in every smart classroom. The cost is insignificant. Schools that are not already wired should look carefully at the wireless option. Wireless classrooms are configurable classrooms. Seating does not have to be in fixed rows. Classroom furniture can be rearranged to suit the needs of each class.

Campuses such as Clemson have gone far down the wired road. All faculty offices and all dorm rooms have been wired. We have 15 classrooms with wired network access at the student tables and 60 smart classrooms. The question we are asking is can a wired-wireless hybrid network meet our future needs? There is a trend toward putting Ethernet interfaces and modems on laptop motherboards. Wireless interface technology has not reached that level of maturity so for the near term we expect to see the wireless interface implemented as a PCMCIA card. Now consider a laptop with built-in Ethernet and modem and a wireless PCMCIA card. Preliminary discussions with wireless vendors indicate that users would be able to move back and forth between a wired and wireless environments with at most the selection of the appropriate interface from a drop-down menu. At Clemson we do have a few classes for which classroom bandwidth is an issue. The hybrid approach might give us the best of both worlds.


This study was sponsored by the Southeastern University and College Coalition for Engineering Education (SUCCEED) and the Pilot Laptop Program, College of Engineering and Science, Clemson University.


1 William F. Moss, Department of Mathematical Sciences, College of Engineering and Science, Clemson University.