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One Computer Per Student: What Has Been Learned at Grove City College?

Mr. John G. Inman
Dr. James R. Downey
Grove City College
Grove City

This paper is designed to provide the reader with an understanding of many of the administrative and academic lessons learned by Grove City College during its implementation of a one-computer-per-student program. The lessons discussed are by no means inclusive of all issues faced by the College over the past five years; however, these issues do relate to some of the most common questions that have been asked by institutions considering such a program.


Since 1994, each full-time student and faculty member at Grove City College has been equipped with a portable computer and printer. The laptop program was initiated to acknowledge, in a tangible manner, the fact that student computing was moving away from centralized computing and rapidly towards distributed networked computing following the concept of "Anytime / Anywhere" learning.

The College has been able to control its costs for equipment, training, support and upgrades through the standardization of both hardware and software and the development of industry partnerships. The College also operates its own computer help desk and repair center to provide a high level of support to its customers.

The process of integrating the laptop computer and its associated software into the curriculum has been gradual. Assignments and readings have been routinely distributed through e-mail, floppy disk or via the campus-wide network, and many faculty members have integrated presentation software into their lectures. Students have used their computer systems for word processing, in laboratory experiments, for Internet web page authoring and a variety of creative applications.

This presentation will cover lessons learned and challenges faced during the implementation of the campus-wide portable computer initiative from both administrative and faculty perspectives. Additional information about the Grove City College Information Technology Initiative including a 10-minute video presentation can be found at and selecting "Grove City College" under "FEATURING."

Administrative Considerations

The Grove City College Information Technology Initiative began in response to the fact that computers were playing a greater role in all fields of study. As courses required greater amounts of hands-on computer use, the institution was faced with the challenge of providing either larger computer labs or developing a plan that would better match the needs of students. Students wanted to have the convenience of using a computer whenever and wherever they needed one. By moving away from centralized computer labs and towards a distributed computing model, Grove City College began its Information Technology Initiative. This initiative was designed to accomplish the following four goals:

A brief description of facts is required to better understand the environment into which the College's computer initiative was introduced. Grove City College is a four-year, private, liberal arts school. The College has an enrollment of approximately 2,300 students of whom about 92% live on campus and nearly 98% study full-time. Student retention rates for each freshman class have increased over the past four years from 87% in 1994 to a high of 94% in 1997. Tuition, room and board charges currently average $11,500 per academic year (1998/99). The College has nearly 140 full-time faculty.

It is important to understand that the administration of a laptop computer initiative would be very different at an institution where a large number of students attend on a part-time basis and retention is low.

Acquisition and Distribution

The College has always used a tier-one manufacturer to provide equipment for the initiative. Normally, tier-one manufacturers can support their products through a vast sales force and local resellers. Tier-ones can also provide additional value-added services such as classroom integration support, networking assistance, user groups and repair support.

At Grove City College, computer systems are distributed only to full-time students. Part-time students must use a desktop computer located in the College's one remaining computer lab. Resident students also have access to the campus-wide network through connections in their dorm rooms, while commuters can access the network through the computer lab or via a small number of dial-in modems.

Students keep the same computer system during their entire course of study. The school provides no refresh program or upgrades. This is done to help keep tuition costs low. Our research has determined that providing two computer systems over a four-year period would increase hardware costs by over 1.8 times. Additional costs include the amount for the second computer, the cost to recover computers from all second-year students and the cost to prepare and distribute new computers to the returning junior class.

Although the functionality of a computer that is over two years old is less than a new model, the College has not been able to definitively show that the students have been held back by using three to four year old technology. Educationally, students mainly use the computer for word processing and e-mail. Both of these applications do not require extraordinary resources. Students who could be considered high-end users have typically purchased a desktop computer for their dorm rooms. It is the College's belief that these students would have purchased a desktop computer systems no matter what type of computer had been provided. Overall, students can accomplish the tasks required throughout their learning experience with four-year old technology.

In fact, the technology curve has recently flattened. Computer systems are not making as drastic jumps in functionality as was the case during the early 1990s. During the first year of the initiative, students received a computer system without CD-ROM and PCMCIA technology. This deficit did have a negative impact on the program as multi-media and networking became important instructional tools on campus. Students with the original computer system had difficulties participating fully; however, in recent years laptop computers have changed only slightly in processor speed and hard drive capacity. This trend has reinforced the College's position not to pursue a two-year refresh option for student computer systems.

During the spring of 1994, each faculty member at the College received a portable computer system and two weeks of intensive training in the use of word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software. This training was designed to introduce each faculty member to various software features and possible classroom integration methods. However, no formal plan was in place to either support or guide faculty members as to how much or how little integration was required. Therefore, great variation existed between courses.

Faculty currently receive upgraded computers only when a student machine is made available through attrition. This situation, however, could justify the implementation of a two or three-year refresh program. Faculty need to have technology no older than three years to be able to provide instruction, quality labs and homework that equals the abilities of the newer computer systems. The College is currently considering such a program to refresh the computers of one third of its faculty each year on a three-year cycle.

Program Management

Initially, the College attempted to be all things to all students by offering both lease and purchase options and a plan for upperclassmen to participate in the program. A fee was included on the student bill for "technology," and students who purchased their computer system were credited for this amount. The fee included amounts for hardware, software, program administration and technical support, and great care was used to explain the items contained within the fee. However, many students believed that the technology fee was equal to the value of only the computer. This equation obviously overstated the value of the machine. Also, students who attended longer than the typical eight semesters began to request a credit on their bill because they believed that they had paid for the computer during their four years of study.

In order to emphasize the fact that the College was providing access to technology and not simply selling a computer to its students, the technology fee was folded into tuition during the second year of the program. Now, each tuition increase also increases the amount available for use in the computer initiative.

The College had to initially choose between issuing laptop computers to its students and faculty or completing the campus network. Distributing the portable computer technology was implemented first because that moved the technology into the student's hands in the fastest manner. Networking all dorm rooms was then completed during by the summer of 1997. Our program was initially hampered by the lack of a functional network, but students began to use and become comfortable with technology. Once the network was completed, the use of e-mail, Internet services and collaborative learning techniques increased dramatically.

Total cost of ownership of technology has decreased for the institution. The laptop computer program provided a means to upgrade technology on a yearly basis and recover the costs directly through tuition. The computer center staff now officially supports only one computer lab on campus. This lab provides computer access to part-time students and to those who have their computer in for repair.

Technical Support

A computer help desk, staffed by student workers, has provided a good first line of defense for technical support. A help desk is critical in assisting users with immediate hardware configuration and software application needs. The College's help desk typically handles around 2,500 questions per semester with its busiest time occurring at 2:30 in the afternoon. Students workers are a good source for help but can often be transient in nature as their class schedules change from semester to semester. The help desk provides only software and configuration support and forwards all mechanical failures to the computer repair shop.

The standardization of technology on campus has reduced both hardware and software support costs. Hardware technicians now train on only a few platforms. This has reduced the number of training classes required per person for certification and has increased the competency of each individual. Hardware problems, once resolved, are easily replicated across campus. Few issues are new to the technicians after two to three weeks into the semester.

In 1995, Compaq Computer Corporation certified the College's repair shop as a Self-Maintainer facility. This certification allows the College to fix and repair all Compaq equipment on-site. Computer equipment is typically repaired within 24 hours and the manufacturer reimburses the College for its warranty labor costs. All repairs are tracked in a database, and small inventories of spare parts are then purchased for commonly repaired items. Stocking these parts helps to facilitate same day repairs, as no loaner computers are provided to students who may have a disabled system. Students, however, can still use a computer in the College's one remaining lab if their system is in for repair.

The College recently signed a Microsoft Campus Agreement that allows all faculty, staff and students access to identical software applications. Accordingly, software technicians can also focus their training and support to a limited number of applications. Fewer types of training classes are now offered and users can easily query each other for help.

Software training needs, however, have changed since the start of the program. Faculty and students no longer request classes covering broad topics like word processing or databases. Computer users now ask for training on skill specific topics such as using tabs, creating tables or using functions in spreadsheets. Users are also providing training specialists less time to prepare lessons, as "just-in-time" training requests have become common.

Lessons Learned

Overall, the administration of a one computer per student program should be kept simple. These lessons learned should serve as a summary of the thoughts stated previously:

These administrative considerations are only half of the issues involved in managing a successful computer initiative. Without a strong commitment to supporting faculty integration of technology into the curriculum, a one-computer-per-student program will never mature past the point of providing computer hardware as a convenience to students.

Curriculum Integration

The paragraphs above describe in some detail the administrative and management issues that must be considered when implementing a laptop initiative such as Grove City College has done. However, simply providing technology is no guarantee of success for significant curriculum integration. In the five years of our program the level of integration has in fact varied significantly. It has become quite apparent that this issue is a very tough nut to crack and there remain many areas where improvement can be made. That having been said, the College can point to some significant successes in both the classroom and the laboratory. These are highlighted below.

Integration into the Classroom

The availability of laptops in the classroom has some distinct advantages especially where real-time simulation is desired. Courses in business, engineering, and science often use simulations to demonstrate and reinforce concepts that are being taught. Up until recently this was usually done in a laboratory environment outside of the normal class time. The use of laptops allows simulation to be incorporated directly into the class at anytime. Furthermore, because the students take the computers with them, follow-up assignments can be assigned for after class or the next class period. One example where integration has occurred is in a room in Rockwell Science Hall. This room was renovated with the integration of technology in mind. The multimedia classroom can be used for both classes and laboratories. The back rows are tiered to improve visibility. There are sufficient data and power outlets for each studentís computer.

Additional opportunities are accrued when the classroom can support networking. Students can log on to the campus network and gain access to any desired resource. This might include class files, multimedia tools, and of course access to the Internet. All of these can be used to enhance the classroom experience.

The small footprint of the laptop is also an advantage, especially where desk space is at a premium. The laptop computer doesnít interfere with the communication between teacher and student or amongst the students in a collaborative activity. An additional benefit to the faculty is the fact that they are relieved of the burden of maintaining a classroom full of computers. Furthermore, on those days when computer work is not desired or necessary the room and work surfaces are not cluttered with unused equipment.

Finally, the students seem to have a real sense of satisfaction because they are using their own computers in a meaningful way. Classroom integration does have a few problems that need to be recognized. Given the limited battery life of even the most recent computers, access to power is desirable. In addition, significant time can be spent in configuring the computers and troubleshooting problems that individual students may encounter with their machines. One way to avoid this is to have students work in small groups (typically two or three). The odds of all a groupís computers having problems is much lower and any problem machines can be dealt with offline of the main activity.

Integration into the Laboratory

Having a laptop program has certain advantages and disadvantages with regard to integration into a laboratory environment. In recent years the availability of real-time data collection devices and software has greatly enhanced the learning experience in the laboratory. In the past, students spent significant time manually collecting, manipulating, and analyzing data. Often little time was available to address how well the students comprehended the information or to consider the impact of variable changes. Using the laptops allows students to investigate several aspects of a problem in short order and concentrate on interpretation and understanding of the results. This, of course, could be accomplished with a desktop computer but the studentís own computers work extremely well. The fact that students are generally familiar with their own computer also helps when they are called upon to use them in the laboratory.

As in the classroom, another advantage is the small footprint of the computers. In a situation where space is at a premium and there is typically lots of equipment set up the laptop minimizes the added space required for a PC. In addition, since the students bring in the machines the department is not required to purchase, install, maintain, or replace a capital item that quickly and greatly depreciates. Furthermore, as each new freshman class enters, the department can take advantage of the improved capability of the new computers.

The availability of a campus network simplifies software installation as students can load programs from a network server. Probably the biggest disadvantage is that the department has no direct control over the computers. This makes it difficult to test software installation and set up. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for studentís machines to be slightly corrupted or modified in ways that make easy set up difficult. A significant amount of time can be spent trouble shooting a studentís computer so that it can be used in the laboratory. Fortunately as the operating systems (particularly Windows 95/98) and software programs have evolved this issue is less of a concern than it was previously.

Student Perspective

Informal surveys of the students indicate a wide variety of uses and level of interest in the laptop computers. The primary use for most students is for e-mail. This is followed by Internet surfing and the production of term papers. Beyond these basics functions the amount of use is very discipline specific. Computers tend to be used more in science, engineering and mathematics. The students appreciate that the laptops take up less space in the residence halls. They also enjoy not having to wait in line at the central computer center to use shared machines or print out papers. They like the portability of the laptop and many students can be found crossing the campus with their computer in tow. Generally they are glad to have their own computer and for some it was a factor in their decision to attend Grove City College.

Faculty Perspective

From the perspective of the faculty the laptop program has been everything from a wonderful opportunity to the equivalent of getting wisdom teeth pulled! The Grove City experience is not unique in this regard as many institutions report difficulty in implementing integration deeply into the curriculum. The College has its share of early adopters that have pushed the limits of technology from the very beginning. Nearly all of the faculty report satisfaction with the ability to conveniently use e-mail and other software programs both at home and work. Many have tried using presentation software in the classroom and several use Web-based materials to enhance their courses. Difficulties have arisen with some faculty as they see little need of or relevance to the use of computers in their work. In addition, as was mentioned previously, the lack of a more frequent replacement cycle makes the faculty machines seriously outdated in many instances.

Significant fractions of the faculty want to use technology but are challenged to find adequate time to create the materials. Any school contemplating a similar initiative should take this into consideration. Most studies show that the time required to develop multimedia materials is several times greater than for a traditional lecture-style presentation. Where integration has been implemented the payoff appears to be significant. Students report great satisfaction with technology-based course components and faculty enjoy the opportunity to use new methods to teach. In many disciplines computer simulation, integrated video, and Web-based materials offer opportunities for education never before possible.

The Future of Integration

Grove City College is now far into the laptop program and will likely continue with it well into the future. The College has a good handle on the business and administrative end of the program but must continue to increase integration.

The College is in the midst of outfitting several multimedia classrooms, and faculty machines are being upgraded as quickly as possible. Excellent training programs are in place to help the faculty get familiar with various programs, as software continually becomes easier to use, even for the most casual user.

Grove City College must now concentrate its efforts on providing opportunities for faculty to develop materials in a variety of disciplines. Although potentially expensive and time consuming, this investment in faculty will pay significant dividends for the school down the road. This is likely to be true at any other comparable institution.


Overall, The Information Technology Initiative has been a tremendous learning process for the students, faculty and administration at Grove City College. Any implementation of this scope takes time, money and commitment. Equipment must be purchased, support systems developed, financial issues resolved, faculty trained, classrooms remodeled and new curriculum developed.

Has Grove City College better prepared its students for their professions? Yes. Has the level of technology increased on campus? Yes. Have we reduced our technology costs? Of course not. Have we promoted the concept of anytime / anywhere learning? Definitely. Has the institution's marketing advantage increased? Yes.

In closing, an institution considering an implementation of this type should be thoroughly familiar with the many administrative and faculty issues created by a one-computer-per-student program.