After listening to students and parents, Scott Lowe, CIO at Westminster College, beefed up capabilities on the basic computer offered through the school’s notebook distribution program.
Aug 14 2008

One by One

Universities that supply notebook computers to students juggle plenty of details.

Of the 28,518 notebook computers that have been distributed to incoming freshmen since Wake Forest University’s student notebook program began in 1996, few have met such a dire end as the one that was mistakenly baked in a student’s kitchen oven, says Nancy Crouch, assistant CIO at the Winston-Salem, N.C., university. Luckily, ruined computers are just a small issue facing universities that offer notebook computers to students.

Dozens of private and public colleges and universities now offer matriculating freshmen a notebook computer, sometimes for a nominal fee, sometimes at no additional charge.

Many of those schools have discovered some common denominators in creating a successful student computer program. The specifics may vary from institution to institution, depending on the size of the student body, type of school, course requirements and other factors. There isn’t a single off-the-shelf plan that all universities can use to implement a student computer program, but there are rules of thumb that schools can apply.

Some schools upgrade students to new machines as they begin their junior year; others offer buyouts at graduation. Some offer half a dozen PC models, but most stick with either two or three notebook models from a single manufacturer. Some universities have found that minimizing the number of models supported, offering comprehensive insurance and replacement programs, and training students to tutor peers and faculty members on relevant hardware and software are all part of the equation that sums up a successful student notebook program.

IT staffs at universities with long-running student notebook programs have gathered some pearls of wisdom in their work. Here is some of that straightforward experience in detail.

Student Input Is Critical to Program Success

“I don’t have information to say that [our notebook program] has increased our enrollment, because we have been maxed out on our enrollment for quite some time, but new students coming in are very excited about the technology we offer,” says Dean Feller, director of technical support operations for Winona State University. WSU, based in Winona, Minn., began offering notebooks to incoming freshmen in 1998. This year’s model can convert to an electronic writing tablet for those who prefer to take class notes by hand.

Student input has shaped the program since its inception, says Feller. “One of the changes we made was to offer a different kind of buyout [for graduating seniors],” he says. Buyouts were once calculated on the fair-market value of the computer at the time of graduation, but students clamored for a more affordable plan. Consequently, Feller says, students who have had their notebook for four or more years can purchase it at graduation for $25; at three years the cost is $125, with higher prices for newer computers.

Limit Models

Limiting the number of models of supported notebooks can significantly ease maintenance burdens, Feller and others say. While a number of schools began programs supporting many makes and models, including computers freshmen brought from home, most quickly realized that such broad support was untenable in the long run.

Westminster College students’ parents helped winnow down the number of supported notebooks from three to one, says Scott Lowe, CIO at the Fulton, Mo., school, whose notebook program dates back three years. “Most parents opted for the [HP Compaq 6515b nc6400] because they thought it would be doing their students a disservice” to purchase the more basic HP notebook offered, Lowe says. Another reason: The price of the deluxe tablet Westminster made available its first year was in the neighborhood of $3,000. Lowe says that the IT group at Westminster has since beefed up the low-end (HP Compaq 6515b) to be more in line with what had been considered the midrange model.

“If you have one vendor, you have a chance of knowing that machine inside and out, and you can have parts on hand,” says Linwood Futrelle, manager of the computer repair center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Futrelle has directed the university’s notebook program since it started in 1998, when it began to issue computers to faculty members. Two years later, the program expanded to include incoming freshmen.

Seasoned notebook program managers allude to softer benefits of limiting the number of computers that are supported on campus.

“Issuing computers to incoming students was a chance to level the academic playing field” by equipping each student with an equivalent amount of computing power and the same software and hardware, says Futrelle.

Two Platforms Might Be Better Than One

Schools can and do make exceptions for disabled students with legitimate needs to use their own computers. At WSU and other places, a dual-platform strategy is required.

WSU’s Feller explains that the academic demands of certain degree programs at the university call for support for both PCs and Macs. Engineering and nursing majors, for example, tend to prefer the PC, while those in arts and music programs lean toward Apple’s platform.

“We don’t tell them they can’t use [a computer brought from home],” says Wake Forest’s Crouch. “We still give them our standard technology; typically they don’t opt out of it.”

Westminster’s Lowe notes that about one-quarter of each incoming class enters the notebook program; many students prefer to bring their own computers with them.

When students and faculty are familiar with the same hardware and applications relevant to their discipline, the focus stays on teaching and learning, not seeking ways to convert document formats. “Faculty members don’t have to install software, nor do they have to have students download applications in order to be ready for class,” says Crouch.

Damage protection programs and a stash of loaner PCs and spare parts in case a student’s computer is lost or disabled are other essential tools to keeping a notebook program running smoothly.

“Some students will find a way to tear up a notebook,” says UNC’s Futrelle, so part of the university’s contract with Lenovo stipulates that a loaner pool will be available.

“If [repairs] will take more than 45 minutes, we’ll offer students a spare computer” to hold them over, Feller says. “They pay a nominal fee regardless of the source of the damage, unless it’s intentional. Our contract says we can charge them up to $200 per incident, but we have kept our costs to $50 or less.”

Become Indispensable

The programs have given rise not only to novel uses of technology, but also to opportunities for faculty, staff and students to collaborate in new ways.

“Students do huge and wonderful things in the area of IT support,” says Crouch, where students routinely teach faculty members how to use the computers for learning both during and after class. “They’re not just computer science majors; they are art and biology majors who want to see new things in the classroom.”

Wake Forest alumni from the class of 2000 and beyond routinely comment on the crucial role that the notebook program played in their college experience, Crouch says. “It’s just become part of our environment here.”

Rotation Equation

Determine the frequency of machine upgrades that best suits your campus.

Majors matter. Engineering programs may require a more aggressive rotation schedule because of computing power advances. “We upgrade our students when they come back as juniors,” says Nancy Crouch, assistant CIO at Wake Forest University. “They never have anything older than two years.” Examine warranties. When faculty members at Wake Forest balked at exchanging tablet PCs after two years, the quality of the warranties on the machines made it easy for the university’s IT group to let them keep it another year, Crouch says.

Stay flexible. Dean Feller, director of technical support operations for Winona State University, says that the school’s original three-year notebook rotation was too infrequent, “because the technology was changing too rapidly. We ran into problems not being able to run the latest [versions of] software.” WSU soon opted for a plan that would let students turn in their machines as juniors.

Lesson Takeaway

The essentials to keep in mind:

Identify clear goals. Linwood Futrelle, director of the notebook program at the Univeristy of North Carolinaa at Chapel Hill, encourages university IT departments to have clear objectives about what the prospective notebook program is designed to accomplish. “It has to be shared vision from the top down, too,” he adds, noting that UNC’s top brass embraced the program publicly from the very beginning.

Involve students in all aspects of the program. Their input is invaluable, on everything from applications to be loaded to the scope of your insurance policy, says Nancy Crouch, assistant CIO at Wake Forest University. Hire students to work on the help desk, train faculty and other students and assist with distribution.

Get cozy with your supplier. Having a close relationship with suppliers can help in terms of pricing, training and more, says Dean Feller, director of technical support operations for Winona State University. “One of the things we have developed with vendors is a staggered delivery schedule, so we don’t have to worry about having a huge quantity of computer assets sitting around, which is a huge liability.”