Iowa State’s Joshua Mack says the school’s notebook program translates into increased collaboration between professors and students.

Mar 03 2009

7 Factors to Consider When Launching a Student Notebook Computer Program

IT managers outline the benefits of notebook computers.

IT administrators discuss seven critical factors to consider when launching a student notebook computer program.

At Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, first-year students arriving on campus are expected to bring with them a love for animals, textbooks for their courses and a newly purchased Fujitsu tablet computer.

Students can jot class notes and take exams on the tablets. They have web access to course materials, including video and PowerPoint presentations of their professors’ daily lectures. They even have “virtual microscope” software installed, so they no longer have to buy and lug regular microscopes to class.

The mandatory computer program translates into an improved educational experience, more collaboration between students and professors, and high user satisfaction, says Joshua Mack, manager of academic IT at the veterinary school.

“When we ask students how they feel about their computers, the majority say, ‘I’m glad you made me buy this. It’s great,’ ” Mack says. “Sharing information is a lot easier now because everything is digital, and it gives students one central place to keep their notes and files.”

A small but increasing number of universities have launched notebook computer programs to attract students and bolster the learning experience. That’s because today’s tech-savvy students demand technology in their classrooms, wireless connectivity and constant access to online resources.

Some schools, such as Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., have deployed campuswide notebook programs, while individual departments and schools at other colleges, such as Atlanta-based Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law, deploy them for their specific programs.

Colleges that launch one-to-one notebook programs standardize on one or several computer models. Standardized computer components simplify help-desk support, speed troubleshooting and reduce support costs. Having common hardware specifications and software configurations also ensures that students can access all the applications and do everything on their computers that professors require, says Rusty Waterfield, Old Dominion’s assistant vice president for computing and communications services.

A notebook program can also replace computer labs, which saves colleges money. It also prepares students for the technology they will use when they enter their chosen fields, says Jonathan Davis, systems manager at Mercer University’s law school.

“A lot of courts expect lawyers to file documents in electronic format, and by learning to use the software and to format documents in law school, they know how to do it when they leave here,” Davis says.

Here are seven factors to consider when starting a notebook program:

1. Make students pay, but negotiate volume discounts so prices are fair. Universities take different funding approaches when implementing their notebook programs, but they have one thing in common: Students pay for the computers. Some schools require students to purchase their own computers. Others buy the computers, then rent or lease them to students. Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine requires students to purchase a Fujitsu tablet. But the school’s College of Design purchases high-end Hewlett-Packard notebooks and software, leases them to students, and when they graduate, they can buy the computers for $10, Iowa State’s Mack says.

Of those who participate in Old Dominion’s notebook program, 94 percent are extremely satisfied.

Source: Rusty Waterfield, Old Dominion University

Beyond the purchase of computers, colleges must deal with the cost of supporting student-owned computers and, if needed, updating the network. Each college takes a different strategy to fund its program. Since launching its computer initiative four years ago, Iowa State’s veterinary school has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, including salaries for two additional tech support staffers and the purchase of new notebooks for faculty so they can incorporate technology into their classes.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis College of Pharmacy builds the cost of its computer program into tuition. A portion of each student’s tuition — $800 — pays for the annualized cost of a Fujitsu tablet, an operating system, Microsoft Office and other preloaded software. It also covers extra batteries, the cost of support technicians, other program expenses and Internet access, says F. Chad Shepherd, the college’s vice president of information technology and CIO.

2. Choose a solid hardware platform with an extended warranty. Once you do that, negotiate a three- or four-year warranty with accidental damage coverage in case of drops or spills. Picking a quality hardware manufacturer and a powerful system ensures that the computer can meet students’ durability and performance requirements for the duration of their college stay, Iowa State’s Mack says.

For example, this past fall the veterinary school standardized on the Fujitsu LifeBook T4220 Tablet PC,which has a 1.8 gigahertz Intel dual-core processor, 1 gigabyte of memory, an 80GB hard drive, a DVD burner, an external hard drive for backup and a four-year warranty with accidental damage coverage.

Despite research and testing, a school might pick a system that doesn’t meet its standards. If that happens, don’t hesitate to switch the following year, Mack says. The veterinary school did just that, switching to Fujitsu after receiving poor warranty-repair support from its first choice.

3. Upgrade network infrastructure to handle the added bandwidth load. If the network is antiquated, do an upgrade so it can handle the new bandwidth requirements. Also, build a Wi-Fi network using enterprise-class products. Iowa State’s veterinary school didn’t anticipate the huge increase in bandwidth needs. During the notebook program’s first year, the IT staff built a Wi-Fi network using consumer access points, and it couldn’t handle the capacity and provide the reliability that the college needed. “That first year, we limped along, networkwise,” Mack says.

On average it takes St. Louis College of Pharmacy 17 hours to fix a computer. The college keeps 10 spare units for each of the school’s six classes and stocks parts that tend to fail, such as LCDs.

Source: Source: CIO F. Chad Shepherd

So before the second year began, the IT department upgraded the network with new Cisco switches and installed Cisco 802.11a/b/g access points — specifically, 10 access points per classroom. “The goal was to allow 120 students to download a 20 megabyte file in less than two minutes,” he says.

4. Train your IT staff. For colleges to take advantage of self-maintainer programs, the IT staff must go through training and earn certification before they can make notebook repairs, explains Old Dominion’s Waterfield, whose school standardized on Lenovo notebooks. Old Dominion’s IT staff received certification training from the manufacturers, but it was more involved than the college first expected, so be sure to schedule enough time for training, he says.

St. Louis College of Pharmacy requires incoming freshmen to take a two-hour computer training session. Students receive training on the software as well as the college’s acceptable-use policy, which allows them to install software but doesn’t let them add peripherals or memory, St. Louis’s Shepherd says.

5. Offer technical and help-desk support. To ensure student satisfaction, IT departments must offer help-desk support that’s quick and convenient.

St. Louis College of Pharmacy tries to make it as easy as possible for students to reach the help desk. Students can e-mail, fill out a web form or make a phone call. The college’s four technicians support 2,000 users, including 1,175 students, and handles about 700 help requests a month.

6. Listen to student feedback. Iowa State’s veterinary school invites students to help decide which tablet to standardize on. Any student can evaluate units and rank them from best to worst, and IT administrators will take their feedback into consideration, Iowa State’s Mack says. It’s also important to survey students at the end of every school year.

7. Don’t procrastinate. It takes time to launch a notebook program, from choosing a notebook to standardize on, training tech support staff and making sure the software image meets the needs of different campus programs, Waterfield says. The IT staff must also coordinate with admissions and the finance office so that brochures for the notebook program are mailed out with acceptance letters. Make sure the website is ready to go by early spring so incoming students can purchase their computers, he adds.

Also, take a phased approach. Don’t bring on the entire school at once. Make the program available to each incoming freshman class. The St. Louis College of Pharmacy is a six-year program, so it took six years for every student to be issued computers. That gives the IT department time to work out the kinks of the program, Shepherd says.

Helping Hand

IT administrators say these technologies can make it easier to manage notebook programs:

  • Use Symantec’s norton ghost software to install software images on as many as 120 computers at a time.
  • Ask students to purchase external USB drives to back up their data. Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine is currently considering a system that will automatically back up students’ hard drives on the college’s storage area network.
  • Install help-desk software that logs and tracks help-desk requests and inventories computers. Students or IT administrators can log in from the web and check the status of computers.
  • Use desktop management software, such as Symantec’s Altiris, to remotely install software on student computers. use Microsoft’s group Policy Management tools to automatically install software patches and security updates.
<p>Matthieu Spohn</p>