Lyon College’s CHARLES NEAL pioneered one of the first student computing programs in Arkansas.
Oct 08 2008

Small Wonders

Colleges meld tech with instruction to produce solid computer plans.

Small colleges have been in the vanguard of higher education institutions that have provided students with computers over the years, and they’ve learned some early lessons: Namely, that these programs can be beneficial to IT operations on campus and can also be a draw for students if managed and implemented properly.

Small colleges that have thriving one-to-one computing programs say success hinges not on the machines’ technical details but on understanding how to use them.

Below, IT managers responsible for some of the longest-running student computer programs in the country, as well as those who have completed exhaustive planning and are about to begin implementation, explain how they approach the daunting task of juggling the myriad demands of a one-to-one computing program.

Give the Plan Bigger Purpose

The institutions whose notebook initiatives have proved to be the most enduring “have a clear and compelling curricular vision” for the role of computers inside and outside the classroom, says Kenneth C. Green, founder and director of The Campus Computing Project, which studies the role of information technology at U.S. colleges and universities. “It’s more than just, ‘Let’s give everybody a notebook,’” Green says.

Michael Zastrocky, vice president and education industry research director at Gartner, agrees. “You don’t want students coming home after their first year and their parents asking them, ‘What are you doing with that machine we paid extra tuition to get?’ You don’t want them to say, ‘I’m just e-mailing my friends.’ If the computer is integrated into the curriculum, you don’t have that problem.”

Lyon College, in Batesville, Ark., prepared for months to kick off its notebook program this fall, according to Charles Neal, Lyon’s director of information services. In treating the computers as one part of a three-pronged academic program dubbed the Lyon Experience, the school hopes to meld the computers into the overall academic life of incoming students.

After a few years of discussion, “our administration decided to launch this laptop initiative as one part of the Lyon Experience,” making it an integral part of student life, says Neal, who accepted his position at the college in January. Lyon is one of the first colleges in Arkansas to implement such a plan, says Neal, who views the program as a lure for potential students.

The Lyon Experience also includes the Nichols International Studies Program, which requires enrollment in a prerequisite course on campus, overseas study for two to three weeks and a cocurricular transcript. The transcript is an online log of extracurricular activities, community service, awards and employment intended to give prospective employers more information about a potential hire than they would get from an academic transcript alone. Neal says he developed several databases to store information gathered in each of seven sections of the cocurricular transcript.

Lyon ultimately chose Lenovo ThinkPads, which will be offered to this fall’s incoming freshman and transfer students. The computers are ideal for everyday use, Neal says, shielded from unauthorized intrusion and shock — even soda spills.

“The college is leasing the machines for two years,” says Neal. “At the end of those two years, the plan is to lease [an upgraded] machine.” Students can take the computers with them at graduation, Neal says.

Never Stop Integrating the Machines

IT personnel at several small universities and colleges say that their well-established programs thrive for a number of reasons. “Weaving the computers into the curriculum is an unending effort,” says Alan Candiotti, assistant vice president for university technology at Drew University in Madison, N.J. In 1984, Drew became the first liberal arts college to provide incoming freshmen with computers (at the time, desktops). The school’s current undergraduate enrollment hovers around 1,670 students.

At Grove City College, a 2,500-student Christian, liberal arts institution in Grove City, Pa., Vice President and Chief Information Officer Vince DiStasi says it’s important to understand the intersection of pedagogy and technology. With interactive and collaborative applications (and devices to run them) permeating classrooms, “we are looking at both teaching and learning, at interactive learning styles and active learning techniques,” he says.

DiStasi says that those considering prospective notebook programs shouldn’t be tied necessarily to notebook compu-ters. “Since we went to the tablet PCs, we have probably done more just using the tablets in and out of the classroom than in the previous 10 years combined,” he says. “They’re easier for faculty and students to embrace in the classroom.”

Leading-edge proponents of notebook programs such as Grove City’s DiStasi believe that a small school is well positioned to run a notebook program like a business, thus reining in costs and keeping the focus on learning.

“Unlike many larger schools, we don’t need to worry about IT islands within departments,” says DiStasi. “We run [our program] like a corporation, treating the entire college as one entity. That way, we can keep our standards in place.” When such “digital unity” is in place, he says, learning takes center stage.

Develop Appropriate Usage Policies

Incoming students at Grove City College take part in a mandatory hour-long orientation designed to help them understand that they are sharing network resources, says DiStasi. If a student repeatedly downloads large movie clips or otherwise disrupts network capacity, “we’ll address it,” he says, perhaps by limiting the student’s available bandwidth via digital certification.

Check Network Capacity

Lyon College’s Neal says that the school upgraded to a 100-megabit-per-second backbone last fall and to a 10Mbps connection from its Internet service provider. He’s confident that’s plenty of room to handle the school-issued machines as they come online. “We’ve been offering network storage for years, and we’re in the process of expanding our campus wireless network,” he says. The college began its wireless network with only four buildings. Students now have wireless access throughout the 136-acre campus.

Give It Time

Above all, say those with one-to-one computer programs, have patience and learn from the process. “Twenty-five years ago, distribution was much harder,” says Drew University’s Candiotti. “The first time you do this, you don’t know what you’re doing.” Now, Drew’s IT staff can equip the incoming class of roughly 500 students with notebooks in about four hours by linking serial numbers on each machine with a student’s ID barcode and by preparing a software image in advance.

Now Comes the Hard Part…

Deciding how students will use their computers takes some careful thought:

Ask the tough questions. When a notebook program is under consideration, “the real issue becomes the curriculum,” asserts Kenneth C. Green, founder and director of The Campus Computing Project. “If we mandate that students have these machines, what are they going to do with them? What is the value we will have added by mandating them?”

Start with professors. “You’re going to have to invest in the faculty,” says Michael Zastrocky, vice president and education industry research director at Gartner. “Let them have the machines a year before you give them out to the students, and provide them with training. It gets them comfortable, and gives them time to learn how they are going to use them in the classroom.”

Align models to class years to minimize distractions. “When a new class enters as plebes [freshmen], they receive a computer that from day one is theirs,” says Lt. Col. Ronald Dodge Jr., associate dean in the Informational and Educational Technology Division at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which has issued computers to cadets for about 20 years — and which requires four-year warranties from vendors.