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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Regents Rolling out Statewide Laptop Requirement

The Board of Regents are beginning the push to make buying a laptop a requirement for admission to all of South Dakota's state universities. Regents executive director Tad Perry says we need laptops in our university classrooms because...
  • by 2011, 50% of South Dakota students will graduate from all-laptop high schools, and they'll choose universities that have similar laptop environments (once you get used to playing Scrabulous in class, it's kind of hard to break the habit)
  • our teacher education programs need to give prospective teachers training in a wireless laptop environment so they are ready to use that technology in our K-12 schools (anyone feeling the tail wagging the dog here?)
  • 60% of the nation's campuses are wireless, and we need to keep up with national trends.
I don't mind toting a laptop to class—actually, I'm quite happy to have all of my homework and class materials on the computer instead of in twelve different binders (much easier to haul on the bicycle). But reading PDF's gets annoying, and I miss taking a good old textbook out to the porch or the park or some other quiet spot with no wireless and lots of sunshine.

Beyond my personal study preferences, the laptop requirement appears to lack any solid educational justification:
  • My personal experience is that a laptops in the classroom are like TVs in a restaurant: an enormous electronic distraction that cuts down human interaction, an essential component of good education. The profs spend more time getting the machinery hooked up and then watching monitor while lecturing, while the students spend more time staring at their screens than paying attention to what the prof and other students are saying.
  • Our own Department of Education admits that, at least at the K-12 level, there is "very little data that says laptops will increase test scores." Last I checked, the state considered test scores the end-all be-all of measuring academic achievement. Hmmm....
I will agree that wireless access can provide benefits for those who want to use them. If you're a prof, the Web becomes your audiovisual folder: you have a billion resources you can bring into the classroom at a moment's notice. If you're a student, you have access to many more research journals and other good academic resources. If you're a visitor to campus—a journalist covering a Regents' meeting, a scholar attending a conference, a prospective student checking things out—you appreciate being able to stay in touch with the office or home.

However, our desire to provide educational opportunities need not extend to requiring, as the Regents would, laptops that meet "certain specifications." A really good wireless environment should be just like Dairy Queen's: it doesn't care what brand of computer you use. It doesn't discriminate among tablet PCs, pocket PCs, and regular laptops. All you should need is a wireless card. If your budget allows you to indulge in a top-of-the-line Mac Airbook, great. If your budget is tight and you can barely save up for a basic laptop from Wal-Mart or a used machine from eBay, fine. Your university's tech mission should be to provide universal access, not universal expensive features or sweetheart lease deals for one particular company.

Besides, think about the educational benefit of providing campus-wide wireless access to any user on any computer. Sure, requiring standardized computers makes the IT department's job easier. But suppose you're a work study student in the IT department. What work experience would you rather have: troubleshooting one or two specific computers, or learning how to fix and connect all sorts of different computers and operating systems? (And aren't our universities all about diversity?)

I like having Internet access on campus. I like using my computer in class, in the library, wherever. But I also know the Regents can achieve basic wireless access for every state campus without imposing massive top-down equipment requirements on students.

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Update 19:12: My friend Patrick provides a map that of where wireless Internet access is available on the SDSU campus. Less than half the campus has it, notes Patrick, and even in the buildings that are covered, wireless is only available in the public areas—i.e., in the dorms, you can get wireless in the lobby and dayrooms, but not in your bunk. So we do have a ways to go.

9 comments:

  1. So tell me comrade, if students are only staring at a screen, why are we wasting money on facilities when they could just as easily stare at their laptops from home?

    As a parent with college looming in the not too distant future for my kids, I only see money being wasted on technology. Costs should go down because of incorporation of computers in education. Are we paying our teachers and professors to be techies or instructors?

    Technology in the classroom does not equal smarter students. We once had blackboard in classrooms. How much does a piece of chalk cost compared to the operating cost of a projector...not the initial cost but the cost of it being on? Chalk wins every time.

    ReplyDelete
  2. If laptops are going to be required, the total system should shift to open source software and operating systems.

    Linux and Open Office can probably do almost everything a student needs to do, but would require some profs to update their spreadsheets, etc. so they would be compatible.

    Such a change could save both the state and the students a healthy chunk of change.

    ReplyDelete
  3. penny pincher10/19/2008 3:10 PM

    Computers are necessary for research and make producting papers much easier. However, I do not believe that they should be in the classroom while a lecture is given. I used pen and paper when I was in college, there is no reason why the students of today should either. This goes for High Schools and College.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This sounds like the fiasco about 10 years ago when USD forced the students to buy palm pilots. The plan lasted one or two years, I can't remember which. The palm pilots were added onto the student's tuition bill, no choice, and were mostly never used. Were outdated by the time USD phased out the program. $200 down the drain just because some mucky muck decided the students just "had to have them." This sounds much the same. If the students want or need them, buy them. If not, use the computer labs. But I guess universities don't care; they already force students to pay fees for athletics and associated facilities whether the student uses them or not. Students should only have to pay for what they use and need to get their education, not blanket assessed for things they don't need or want.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The real problem with laptops in the classes is that they do not encourage the socratic method. Instead, they are used to simply present information to students without forcing students to absorb and then learn how to apply said information.

    The goal of school should be to teach someone how to learn. Not any particular subject. We need more fishermen.

    In every case of laptop integration I've seen, the learning environment has become a one way information street. There is little dialog between the teachers and the students. Tests accordingly are just turning into regurgitation sessions.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Cory says, "... But reading PDF's gets annoying, and I miss taking a good old textbook out to the porch or the park or some other quiet spot with no wireless and lots of sunshine."

    That's not all. One of my readers reported that some of the mathematical symbols in my books do not translate correctly on his e-book reader. I suspect the same could happen with laptop PDFs. Wrong fonts, wrong symbols. Not a good thing for technical text.

    Roy Blount, Jr., The president of the Authors' Guild and an occasional guest on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" wrote an editorial about one of these readers in a recent issue of the Authors' Guild bulletin. He was less than impressed.

    Computers have their place, of course, but ... so do bound books. I just bought two today, spiritual tomes that would be quite ridiculous to read from a computer display.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hey Cory,
    If you look at the map referenced, the only building universally covered by wireless is the Library. That's the ONLY building 100% covered on the ENTIRE SDSU campus. Even a building that is considered (by administrators) 100% covered, the Student Union, isn't. There are offices (that include student areas) in the union that currently pay a monthly fee for wired ports, and we can't lose the valuable port fees...so the wireless doesn't reach the offices. On purpose.

    I can't even begin to write on this topic, because it would go on forever, but mobile computing is going to be an even bigger problem as we near the legislative session. The "Pay Date Change" is going downhill, I don't think there's any way the legislature will give the BOR 3.7 million ongoing in today's economy, and without those pieces, students are looking at fees approaching $500. A semester. Can you imagine?
    Recruitment programs like the $1000 Jackrabbit Guarantee are major drivers of SDSUs growth. With mobile computing, all the economic benefit is gone in one fell swoop.

    ReplyDelete
  8. It's kind of funny to read about this spending requirement to be imposed on South Dakota students at the same time that some universities in other states are trying to make things easier on their students by giving them free bikes. http://tinyurl.com/5vd3na

    ReplyDelete
  9. Maybe the BOR is just out of touch with the life and times and financial situation of the actual student. Gets a little far away from actual life sometimes in those ivory towers.

    ReplyDelete

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