Netbooks help Northwestern students move away from paper-based courseware, say (from left) Hosea Lee, Darren Gruett and Rich Johnson.

Aug 18 2009

Netbooks Prove Cost-Effective for Universities

Colleges see netbooks as a lightweight, low-cost option that can level the playing field.

When Darren Gruett heard about a plan last year to put netbooks into the hands of students at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety, he broke out in a cold sweat.

“I thought, ‘I am already supporting 50 notebooks now as one person,'” says Gruett, an IT support associate at the CPS, part of Northwestern's School of Continuing Studies in Evanston, Ill.

When a colleague mentioned that as many as 800 netbooks could be deployed by the end of 2008, Gruett asked himself whether he had the time and resources to support that many students in an off-campus environment. In addition to on-campus classes in crash investigation and forensic science, the CPS conducts its School of Police Staff and Command in cities around the United States.

Indeed, while Lenovo's S9e and S10e IdeaPad netbooks attracted administrators' attention with their small form, competitive pricing and full-size QWERTY keyboards, neither Gruett, IT Manager Hosea Lee nor anyone else knew what support challenges the new machines would pose. So they chose to pilot the netbooks during an on-campus course to better tackle any problems that might arise.

The fall 2008 test ran smoothly. One netbook with bootup problems was found to have an improperly seated battery and was swiftly replaced. Ensuing off-campus courses have also worked out well.

“Every machine is identical, so I can talk students through any issue – a wireless card not picking up a signal, a screen going blank, typically simple things like that,” says Gruett. Once filled with doubt, Gruett and Lee now say they're happy they opted for the netbooks.

Inexpensive and lightweight, netbooks are creeping into the IT strategies of a number of colleges and universities. They are being piloted in programs ranging from electrical engineering to nursing.

Netbooks are being considered for incoming freshmen at places like Lyon College in Batesville, Ark., where administrators met last summer to weigh the pros and cons of notebooks versus netbooks.

“We heard from several people that the keyboard was too small to spend a great deal of time typing papers,” says Charles Neal, director of information services at Lyon. Still, Neal adds that there's definitely interest in the compact size of the netbooks and their suitability for classroom notetaking.

While there's plenty of discussion about its pros and cons, the netbook's role in a student's tech arsenal is still being defined.

Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, says unlike some one-to-one programs in which incoming freshmen are equipped with a notebook linked tightly to curriculum requirements, the role of a netbook is still largely unknown.

“Is a netbook a second computer for some students?” asks Green. “Is it the student's only computer? Is it robust enough for the typical student versus the one who has high-end computing needs?”

Until recently, he adds, netbooks held more appeal to large organizatons than to individuals such as students.

Test the Waters

Schools studying the viability of netbooks are also in the process of defining the product's optimal use in and out of the classroom.

“Our students need to have the most current technology, and they need a professional development kit,” says Rich Johnson, associate dean of professional development programs at Northwestern's School of Continuing Studies, who pushed for the netbook trial at CPS.

By refusing to be confined to traditional three-ring binders and other paper-based course materials, Northwestern provides students with a tool they can walk away with that will increase their effectiveness in the real world, Johnson contends. On the cost front, he says it's a wash between providing students with paper materials versus a new netbook loaded with the same documents.

In addition, the netbooks allow the school to reduce its carbon footprint, Johnson says, in part by no longer printing and shipping hundreds of 4-inch binders to students, who also now take exams online rather than with paper Scantron cards.

At Vincennes University, in Vincennes, Ind., netbooks help to level the academic playing field.

Many students at Vincennes for the most part can't afford the notebooks that collegiate life requires, says Bob Slayton, the school's dean of learning resources. “We thought our students needed to have a common device, and netbooks are a less expensive approach as they improve teaching and learning,” Slayton says.

Vincennes offers associates' and bachelors' degrees in electronics, manufacturing and other areas to some 5,000 students. To date, the university, which paid about $340 apiece for 120 Asus Eee netbooks, has tested them in two separate pilots that launched last year: one for 35 second-year nursing students, the other for students in advanced manufacturing.

Nursing students have to lug their books and paperwork to a nearby hospital to complete clinical work, Slayton says, so mobility is a big factor.

Power Play

The advanced manufacturing pilot uncovered some limitations of the computers, Slayton says. “Some students were concerned about the slow performance of heavy-duty apps like Mastercam,” he says, even though the team had equipped the netbooks with two additional megabytes of RAM to handle the CAD/CAM program.

Other students' comments pointed to the netbook's cross-course usefulness. “One student told us he used it for his tool-and-die class and his English class,” says Slayton.

However, computing power – or the lack thereof – is the main reason CPS's Lee wouldn't use a netbook as his primary machine, though “if you have a desktop, you might take a netbook with you when you travel,” he says.

The IT team at CPS chose the Lenovo IdeaPads because they're closer to a standard notebook in terms of keyboard and screen size, Gruett says. As students were going to be working on the netbooks many hours a day, his team was sensitive to the need to provide a screen with a comfortable viewing size and a keyboard that didn't force users to peck one letter at a time.

CPS then loaded dozens of Lenovo netbooks with a full range of applications, including Office 2007, Firefox and antivirus software for the pilot class. That process, which took about an hour per machine, proved too cumbersome, so now Gruett builds the image on a template machine and sends it to CDW, which loads the machines, then ships them to the course site.

Vincennes' Slayton is delighted by the enthusiasm with which students took to the netbooks. “Training issues were basically nonexistent,” he says.

At CPS, Johnson admits he was afraid the center would have to offer paper course materials for students who might not feel comfortable with the netbooks. “But everybody took right to them.”

The Netbook Advantage

Cost Netbooks tend to run between $200 and $400, whereas most low-end notebook PCs are in the $300 to $600 range. The low price point is especially attractive to colleges looking to level the playing field.

Size On average, netbooks tend to weigh less than notebooks. Also, netbooks typically have a smaller form factor. Weighing between 3 and 5 pounds on average versus 5 to 8 pounds for notebooks, netbooks are compact enough to fit in a purse or carry under your arm.

Useability For comfortable typing and viewing, many netbook manufacturers such as Acer, Asus and Lenovo take great pains to keep the unit's keyboard and screen size as close as possible to that of a standard notebook computer.

<p>Matthew Gilson</p>