Lower cost learning handheld with care

August 1, 1997

As tiny computers proliferate at sub-Pounds 500 prices, Matt Jones argues that Dearing could have gone much further in urging students to break free, physically and financially, from what is on offer in the college computer room

It's a high point of any open-day visit. Potential students are shown row upon row of personal computers. Admissions tutors boast of the purpose-built labs full of highly specified machines all around campus.

But to IT planners and budget holders those multimedia monitors should be as ominous as tombstones. Without a radical change in the way students are provided with IT resources, institutions may find it hard to compete in the dynamic new learning market and students will be poorly served.

Higher education institutions spend a large proportion of their IT budgets on installing, running and maintaining computer workspaces. Hardware, software, lighting, heating, security and support costs lead to a heavy financial burden. Every few years there is the pressure to update.

Dearing signals two important changes in the HE environment: increased financial responsibility for students and a greater degree of control over their learning. IT provision may be one of the first areas where we see this new ethos worked out in a direct and beneficial way.

The kind of thing Dearing envisages can already be seen at the University of Florida. The university handbook makes its position clear: "While the university offers limited access to computers through its computer labs, most students will be expected to purchase or lease a computer that is capable of dial-up or network connectivity." No computer, no enrolment.

Institutions cannot afford to supply even the current demand for IT access in physical terms. Students are complaining about overcrowded labs and the lack of 24-hour opening. There isn't enough money or space for the increasing numbers of students.

The Florida policy also recognises two breeds of learner that are becoming increasingly important: lifelong and distance students. Rooms full of PCs are of little or no use to these students.

Can students really afford to supply their own computer? For many, the answer is yes. Students do buy desktop and laptop machines and institutions have been experiencing increased demand for dial-in access. Soon, computers will be cheaper than the hi-fi systems that fill study bedrooms.

New handheld machines seem ideal. Small and light, fitting neatly into a jacket pocket, they are cheap- Pounds 500 and falling - and the batteries last for months.

At first sight it is easy to dismiss these novel devices as part of a passing gadget fad. But with companies such as Microsoft investing heavily in the technology - it has launched a cut-down version of the Windows operating system and applications for handhelds - such an attitude is hard to sustain. Give typical students these handhelds and they might never return to an institution's over-specified workstations. They support most common information tasks from word-processing to web-browsing and all in a really portable form.

So let us assume most students will own a computer in a few years. How should institutions redirect their IT spending to meet the needs of all their students in an effective and competitive way?

A start would be to close computer rooms. There will always be a need for some workstations, providing specialist facilities or supporting students who cannot afford to buy their own machine, but the days of the vast 50-plus seater labs must be numbered.

Instead of equipping, securing and maintaining rooms of PCs, institutions should put a new type of infrastructure in place. Connection points all around campus would mean students could use their own computers wherever they wished - in seminars, at the library, down the student union. For off-campus, anytime access, investment in fast, reliable high capacity dial-in facilities is also a must. Support from technical and service help desk teams is essential.

Money previously sunk in computer rooms could also be used to develop high value digital services. If universities fail to deliver, others will. VirginNet, an Internet service provider, is already experimenting with the launch of an education web channel. Others will surely follow. In the post Dearing world of continuing education and portable learner accounts, it's not hard to imagine people using common-place personal IT to take courses from a range of providers. How about a current affairs module from Time magazine or a natural history qualification over the Discovery channel using an Internet capable television set?

This might sound expensive but so are all those rooms on every campus. By shifting the money into access and services, there is a chance institutions will be able to buy into the future.

Matt Jones is a lecturer in computing science at Middlesex University

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