Colleges weigh new prerequisite: A laptop in every backpack
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.