Colleges weigh new prerequisite: A laptop in every backpack

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As college freshmen head off to campus this year, they're toting cellphones in one pocket, iPods in another. And that click-clack you hear isn't the jingle of new dormitory keys - it's their fingers pounding instant messages back and forth.

So last week, as incoming students at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts waited for tech staff to configure their laptops - which three state schools are requiring all student to have this fall - they didn't exactly feel they were on the cusp of a revolution.

"I would have gotten one anyway," says Meaghan Noonan, shrugging. She used a computer all throughout high school; her new laptop would have been a graduation gift from her grandparents, requirement or not.

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But the laptop requirement by some state colleges in Massachusetts has renewed debate about the reach of technology, sparking both excitement and incertitude across the country.

For some, the proliferation of high-tech gadgets in every dorm and classroom - indeed on every cargo-pant clad student - offers a chance to transform the very act of learning.

But for others, requiring a laptop in every backpack ignores economic realities and drives a wedge between rich and poor. And even if all students could afford a laptop, some professors say, it's likely to be used more for downloading music than deconstructing Dante.

"It's ironic that higher education, writ large, has been slower to integrate [the Internet] into its other functions, the way some institutions have," says Ken Kay, the chairman of the consulting group Infotech Strategies, which specializes in technology in education. While research has been revolutionized by the wireless world, "we are only at the very front end of it having a profound impact on how we teach."

Tech in the classroom

Computers have been part of a classroom's fabric for years. Some colleges and universities have required their students to own them since the 1980s. While some academics say learning, which has long predated the Internet, isn't enhanced by PCs, others say advances in technology have created a global village on campus, bringing sprawling universities back to a small-town atmosphere.

"Everybody in the community talks with each other more frequently," says David Brown, a professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "Students run into trouble, they e-mail one another, e-mail the faculty. The whole culture changes."

Advocates also affirm that tools of technology have an impact on the learning process. Computers lend themselves to group projects and collaborative research - essential skills when preparing students for a workforce growing less rooted in the mastery of a single discipline.

Still, PCs for all has been slow to gain a foothold. According to the Core Data Service 2003 Summary Report, forthcoming, by the not-for-profit EDUCAUSE, only about 3.2 percent of colleges require students to own or lease PCs.

Kenneth Green, the founding director of The Campus Computing Project, a group that tracks technology in higher education, says schools have been deterred, in part, by costs and challenges of creating a compelling curriculum that merits a PC requirement.

For Donald Heller, an associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University, the added burden of buying or leasing a computer can be prohibitive. Besides, he says, many colleges don't want to dictate how students should spend their money. "Universities and colleges want students to make a judgment on whether having a laptop ... best facilitates their learning," Mr. Heller says.

While some see technology as an economic divider, others see it as an equalizer. Lee Torda, an English professor at Bridgewater State College, says at first she was concerned that her English classes would become so bogged down by technology that mastering fonts would take precedence over mastering grammar. But she came to appreciate its uniting factor. "Technology is cultural capital," she says.

The laptop initiative in Massachusetts came out of a review some four years ago by the Board of Higher Education, which revealed the state's colleges to be behind in technology curriculum. While a proposal to equip every student with a laptop was rejected by the board as too logistically challenging, some state colleges went ahead with the plan.

Framingham State College began the program in 2002. Bridgewater State College and Worcester State College implemented the policy this year. Four other state schools will be phased in during the next two years. The requirement does not apply to community colleges or the University of Massachusetts system.

Costs and benefits

For Andrea Carr, whose daughter Teresa will be a special education major at Bridgewater this fall, it's good news - especially since the $1,200 additional cost was included as part of a financial aid package. "If we didn't have that, it would be a different issue," she says.

At Valley City State University in North Dakota, president Ellen Chaffee says tuition jumped 50 percent in 1996 when laptops were required. "It was a highly risky thing for us to do," she says. But it didn't drive enrollment down. "We would never go back in a million years."

For all of the benefits that technology provides, some professors say it can encourage bad student habits, like pretending to type a lecture while actually sending instant messages. Heller of Penn State says he'd rather have students engaged in discussion during class time. "There are much better ways to improve learning on campus than telling students they have to buy a laptop."

Researchers say there is no hard clinical evidence to prove the efficacy of ubiquitous computing. Joe Aulino, vice president for Information Technology at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says many schools still aren't convinced the pedagogical benefits balance the demands for staff retraining and course restructuring.

Slowing down the trend further, says Kay, are many professors who are resistant to change. Still, the culture has changed, and Mr. Aulino suspects that as students are increasingly wired, teaching methods may evolve to appeal to them.

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