A real screen saver

March 26, 1999

Chris Duckenfield describes how his university is bucking the UStrend of making cash-strapped students invest in laptops

College costs in the United States are high, and plenty of people like it that way. Oh, surely not! But if not, how do we explain the phenomenon of colleges sharply and arbitrarily increasing tuition costs and seeing applications from prospective students soar? In particular, how do we explain the positive attention given to those institutions that have effectively increased their fees by requiring students to purchase a personal computer?

Colleges, particularly private ones, are significantly raising their fees with little or no corresponding increase in service, yet experience a sharp rise in applications. The assumption is that the parents of college-bound students, and maybe the students themselves, equate cost with quality. This, together with the increase in middle-class wealth from the prolonged bull market, has enabled institutions at the upper end of the cost and quality scale to increase their charges with impunity.

This is now having a ripple effect among public institutions, and one manifestation of it is in the way they are approaching the problem of providing computing services to students. Colleges have figured out that if they can raise their tuition and fees by several thousand dollars without improving their services and still see an increase in applications, then they can cover the cost of computing services with just the tiniest bit of creativity.

Providing students with a laptop computer and then adding the cost to tuition and fees has proved to be a surefire way of getting attention. This comes from students and parents who think they are getting something for their money; from computer vendors, who want to lock in volume sales; and from the press, which is suckered by university public relations offices into perpetuation of the myth that there is something educationally significant happening if money is being spent.

This situation raises a serious problem for public institutions. How can they keep up with the private institutions technologically if they do not have the option of significantly raising tuition and fees either directly, by including the cost of a computer, or indirectly, by requiring students to bring their own machines?

Some colleges and universities have danced around the issue by "expecting" rather than "requiring" all students to have their own computer. Others have announced a requirement that all students have their own computer, but put it off until some future date. Still others have required computers in certain disciplines and strongly recommended them in others.

There is no university-wide curriculum that necessitates all students have their own computer. In many disciplines it is a great convenience, and to be recommended, but not necessary if the university provides computing support. Institutions that require all students to have their own machines do so not because the curriculum demands it, but because of a desire to appear to be different. If nothing else distinguishes you, early adoption of a "laptop for everyone" programme will.

The public attention that such colleges get gives the impression that this is a path that other institutions should follow. However, there are more cost-effective alternatives, if only those institutions could see past the hype from the education industrial complex of high-priced private universities and their corporate sponsors.

Clemson University has an approach that provides high-quality computing support services to large numbers of students in a technologically intensive institution. Clemson has developed a "virtual laptop" that provides a student with the advantages of a personal laptop without the disadvantages, at a cost of between a tenth and a twentieth of a laptop ownership programme. A student can walk into any one of 33 college labs, varying in size from 25 to 125 machines, sit down in front of any machine, and identify himself or herself to the network. The network then builds that student's personal computer on that machine, exactly as it was left on another machine somewhere else on campus at some other time, complete with all the student's data, preferences, bookmarks, and screensavers. It is as if the student had plugged in a laptop; except that the student did not have to carry it across campus, did not have to worry about it getting lost or stolen, did not have to worry about backing up data (because that is done by the network) and best of all, did not have to buy it.

The virtual laptop has proved to be an effective way to provide the best in computing support to large numbers of students. While the Clemson network supports student-owned machines - about a third of all students own machines - and every residence hall room has a network connection for each resident, the university is providing a computing environment that allows students to purchase computers at their own pace, when they feel that they need them.

The university has a voluntary pilot programme in which the curriculum is built around the assumption that all students have access to a laptop at all times. This is part of Clemson's strategy to stay in touch with developments in educational computing and prepare for future student needs. As computers become cheaper and more integrated into daily lives, more students will purchase laptops as a matter of choice. However, students should have access now to the resources that they need to make the most of their education without the added burden of purchasing their own machines. The virtual laptop makes that possible.

Chris Duckenfield (cjdk@clemson.edu) is vice-provost, computing and information technology, Clemson University, South Carolina.

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