CAUSE/EFFECT

This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 21 Number 3 1998. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See http://www.educause.edu/copyright for additional copyright information.

Should Colleges and Universities Require Students to Own Their Own Computers?
by Kathryn F. Gates

In 1983 student computer users were mainly science and engineering majors. In 1998 all students need access to computers to succeed in school regardless of their majors. The intervening years have witnessed the growth of computer use in word processing, data analysis, and presentations; the explosion of the Internet and its centrality as an information resource; and, equally important, the infusion of computer-based learning applications and environments into the curriculum to the degree that what was of marginal utility to most in 1983 is an essential tool for all in 1998.

Students now use computers to complete assignments, to communicate with faculty and other students, and to research subject matter using online databases and Web resources. Students critique each other�s work and communicate with experts at remote sites by means of online chat sessions. Many textbooks now come with companion tutorials which are computer-based.

Beyond their capability to enhance instruction and research, computers can make participation in campus life more convenient by providing Web-based services and easy access to information. Some universities offer online ride-share boards, classified ads, electronic services for finding roommates, and other applications geared toward social needs.

The question to be asked then is, "Should a student be required to come to campus with a computer?" While computer requirements are fairly common among small private schools,1 most state-supported institutions are still recommending rather than requiring that students come to campus with a computer in tow. Among the exceptions are Georgia Tech, the University of Florida (UF), Virginia Tech, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH). Georgia Tech and the University of Florida opted for a phased approach. In summer 1997, entering freshmen at Georgia Tech were required to have a computer.2 In summer 1998, new and junior year UF students were required to "acquire computer hardware and software appropriate to their degree programs.3 Virginia Tech freshmen were required to bring computers to campus starting in the fall of 19984 and UNC-CH students will be required to have laptop computers beginning in 2000.5

On my own campus, the University of Mississippi (UM), increasing numbers of students voluntarily bring their computers. Almost 70 percent of entering freshmen indicated that they would bring a computer of some sort to campus in the fall of 1998. Many of the freshmen who are not able to bring a computer of their own have made arrangements with a roommate to share a system. To date, only the UM Pharmacy and Business schools have added a computer requirement. Students in these programs are given configuration guidelines, but they can choose the computer model and brand. Determining whether a computer requirement is in the best interest of UM students and students at other universities is a timely topic worthy of careful consideration.

Questions beget questions

Once an institution answers the student computer requirement question with a "Yes," many more questions arise. Are all students required to purchase the same model through the university, or can students purchase computers on their own as long as they meet a minimum set of requirements? Are students required to purchase laptops for maximum flexibility, or can they get by with less-expensive desktops? Ideally, a student can take a computer all over campus--from the residence hall to the library to the classroom--and, at UM, even to "the Grove"; yet getting comparable processing power in a laptop over a desktop can add a thousand dollars or more to the purchase price.

There are numerous variations on this theme of choice. Students and faculty at Wake Forest are given standard issue IBM ThinkPad laptops which are replaced every two years,6 while students at the University of Florida can choose the model as long as it satisfies a minimum configuration requirement. Some argue that certain brands may be better suited to certain fields, as is the case with Macintosh systems for graphic design. Virginia Tech students can choose between laptop and desktop models and between Macintosh and PC versions to accommodate the "wide variety and diversity of disciplines and course offerings."7 UNC-CH recently selected IBM as its laptop supplier, but students will be free to choose another vendor if they can find a better buy.8 Some staff and students have criticized the school�s computer requirement plan for limiting student choice.9 On the other hand, technical support is easier to provide when hardware and software are standardized.

Should computers be student- or university-owned? Software can be obtained at reduced prices with a campus site license, but some licenses require that the computer be university- rather than student-owned. Should computers be leased or purchased, or should both options be available? What options are available for students who can�t afford the added cost? Should the added fees be folded into tuition or charged separately? UNC-CH students will be able to purchase the laptops from campus stores, finance the purchase over four years, or apply for grant assistance to cover the cost of the computer.10

Benefits

Universities that have adopted a computer requirement cite success in enhanced learning, improved retention rates, increased communication among faculty and students, and universal access.11 Clearly, the experience gained can enhance the student�s marketability. While a computer requirement adds to an already expensive education, the cost of the computer can be calculated into "demonstrated need" for financial aid; moreover, the requirement creates equal opportunity for all students with regard to computer access. Some claim that computers encourage more, not less, interaction between faculty and students. From a management perspective, if students have their own computers, then it may be possible to recover some valuable microcomputer lab space; institutions that require laptops can move toward supporting laptop spaces in classrooms, with a power supply and network connection at each seat, rather than more expensive desktop-based classrooms. A student computer requirement can also mean standardization on hardware and software, which can translate into less complex support from an IT management perspective. Finally, it can also facilitate the negotiation of site licenses that provide significant savings.

Issues

While the notion of a computer requirement is attractive, there are several important points to consider before adopting this approach. First and foremost is support. The universities that have added a computer requirement have reported a substantial "ramping up" of their technical support services.12 Students and faculty must be trained to use the computers. Some claim that student computer labs and personal ownership together provide adequate access but that the missing piece is the lack of an incentive for faculty to pursue a technological direction. How will computer repairs be handled? What about software installations and upgrades? What is the impact of the additional computers on the campus computer/network infrastructure? How do colleges and universities fund the infrastructure required to support the computer requirement plan? One of the most widely publicized programs is the "Plan for the Class of 2000" at Wake Forest where students pay $3,000 in extra tuition annually.13

If computers are university-owned, then a policy is needed to protect against damage or loss. The support team must set up a receiving/staging/configuring distribution point for issuing computers to students and faculty. Likewise, a scheme for returning/upgrading/scrubbing/storing computers at the end of the term must be established. If the computers are university-owned, then how often should the computers be replaced with new models? What options are available for salvaging or disposing of the models that are replaced?14

If laptops are required, then classrooms must be converted to provide a power supply and network connection at each seat. Students will need secure places where they can store their laptops during the day. Some students at universities with laptop requirements have complained of "laptop noise." They find the clicking and clacking of multiple laptops in classrooms and libraries disruptive. At least one administrator reports that public labs are growing at his university in spite of laptop requirements, because students get tired of carrying their laptops and prefer working at a desktop. Others note the importance of the social interactions that occur in lab clusters. For example, in departmental labs graduate students may play an important role in mentoring undergraduate students.

There are many other related issues. Should we continue to channel funds into computer labs as more and more students own their own computers? How should we renovate classrooms so that they are multimedia-enabled and can accommodate students with their own computers? What sort of support is needed to help faculty incorporate technology into the curriculum to leverage the growing student computing capability?

Interest is rising as several large, state-supported institutions now require students to come to campus with a computer. College and university administrators are watching closely to see how computer requirement programs evolve at other institutions and whether they are successful. Should students be required to purchase their own computer? While the answer to the question may not yet be an unequivocal, "Yes," it is certainly a question that every campus should be asking.

Sidebar

WWW Resources on Student Computing Requirements "Notebook Colleges and Universities," by Ray C. Brown, lists colleges and universities with laptop requirements
(http://www.vcsu.nodak.edu/offices/itc/notebooks/other.htm)

"Mandatory Computer Ownership at Law Schools: A Survey," by James E. Duggan, provides information on Law Schools that have adopted a computer requirement
(http://www.siu.edu:80/offices/lawlib/survey.htm)

"Assessing the Notebook Initiative," in Change magazine, by Kathryn Holleque and G. Phillip Cartwright
(http://contract.kent.edu/change/articles/novdec97.html)

"Three Years and Eight Days," in Change magazine, by G. Phillip Cartwright
(http://contract.kent.edu/change/articles/julaug97.html)

Georgia Tech�s Web site describing student computing ownership
(http://www.sco.gatech.edu/)

Dartmouth College�s Web site describing computer ownership requirements
(http://www.dartmouth.edu/comp/new-info/)

The University of Florida�s official policy on computer ownership requirement
(http://www.circa.ufl.edu/computers/)

A press release about the laptop ownership requirement at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
(http://www.unc.edu/news/newsserv/univ/feb98/elaptop.html)

A Web site describing Virginia Tech�s Fall 1998 freshman computer requirement
(http://www.compreq.vt.edu/)

A summary of discussion from the (then) CAUSE CIO listserv in May of 1998
(http://www.educause.edu/asp/doclib/abstract.asp?ID=CSD3180)

"Computers for All Students: A Strategy for Universal Access to Information Resources," by Mark Resmer, Diana Oblinger, and James R. Mingle, a summary of a SHEEO publication on this topic
(http://www.educause.edu/nlii/keydocs/csu.comps.4.kids.html)

Endnotes

1 Jennifer Burg and Stan Thomas, "Computers Across Campus," Communications of the ACM, January 1998, 22-25.

Back to the text

2 See "Student Computer Ownership" at http://www.sco.gatech.edu/.

Back to the text

3 See "UF Computer and Software Requirement" at http://www.circa.ufl.edu/computers/.

Back to the text

4 See "Fall 1998 Freshman Computer Requirement" at http://www.compreq.vt.edu/.

Back to the text

5 See "Carolina Computing Initiative" at http://www.unc.edu/cci/.

Back to the text

6 Jeffrey Young, "Invasion of the Laptops: More Colleges Adopt Mandatory Computing Programs, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 December 1997, A33-A35.

Back to the text

7 See "Fall 1998 Freshman Computer Requirement" at http://www.compreq.vt.edu/.

Back to the text

8 Goldie Blumenstyk, "U of North Carolina Will Urge Students to Buy IBM Laptops," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 July 1998, A20.

Back to the text

9 Jeffrey Young, "U of North Carolina Criticized for Plan to Require Students to Own PCs," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 May 1998, A29.

Back to the text

10 See "Carolina Computing Initiative" at http://www.unc.edu/cci/.

Back to the text

11 Ray Brown, "Campuses Adopt ThinkPad Concept with Thumbs up from Constituents," IBM Higher Education Web site (http://204.146.49.251/news/bulletin/think/brown.html).

Back to the text

12 Kelly McCollum, "At U of Florida, �Ramping Up� to Support 42,000 Student Computers on a Single Campus," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 March 1998, A27-A29.

Back to the text

13 Young, "Invasion of the Laptops."

Back to the text

14 "Requiring Students to Own Laptop Computers: Curricular and Technical Issues" (letters to the editor), The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 January 1998, B3 and B12.

Back to the text

Kathryn F. Gates ([email protected]) is director of support services and research assistant professor in the Office of Information Technology at the University of Mississippi.

...to the table of contents

Menubar Imagemap