Laptops cost piles on agony

August 8, 1997

THE GOAL of a laptop computer for every student by 2006 will put financial burdens on undergraduates and institutions, technology experts have warned.

Delegates to a conference last week on "IT and Dearing: the implications for HE", urged caution on the recommendation by Sir Ron Dearing's committee of inquiry that all students should have a portable computer by 2006, at a likely cost of about Pounds 500 each.

Students have labelled the idea a "top-up fee" added to the Pounds 1,000 per year tuition already proposed.

Sandi Golbey, a lecturer in the Cripps Computing Centre at the University of Nottingham, said: "We are putting a lot of emphasis on equipment on the students who can ill afford it." Colin Beardon, research professor in the faculty of arts and education at the University of Plymouth, said a Pounds 500 portable computer would be of little use for art and design students, whose machines cost a minimum of Pounds 5,000 to Pounds 6,000 each.

Adrian Boucher, head of the NatWest Financial Literacy Centre at the University of Warwick, said the plan would also make life difficult for institutions. He warned the computers could introduce viruses or overload university networks.

Clued-up students hacking into university systems could prove a security threat. And universities and colleges would be held responsible if students were caught on their premises using unlicensed software. Extra network managers to deal with security breaches would cost money that few universities could spare, he claimed.

Jean MacDonald, a member of the Association for Learning Technology Committee, agreed that students' use of unlicensed software could prove a problem.

"This will clearly be an issue because students will be plugging in something that a university has very little control over," she said. "There is a question about how much people will be able to spend on checking what has been plugged into the network."

She said universities and colleges would also need to find ways of dealing with increased traffic on the networks, which could require them to upgrade their systems.

But Sir William Stubbs, rector of the London Institute and a member of the Dearing IT committee, said it was inevitable that before very long, all students would bring with them a portable machine of some kind. He said the committee had considered having a standard UK student learning computer but had to abandon the idea because of powerful market forces.

Diana Laurillard, pro vice chancellor of the Open University and a member of the main Dearing committee, said good management was the key to effective use of communications and information technology.

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