The Cost and Necessity of Computing

A laptop is only so useful if it's not networked. Either make the wireless cards part of the package or increase the number of Ethernet jacks by a factor of 25 or so. (Student quote from Li & Newby, 2002)

Soaring costs combined with increased reliance on information technology, including basic microcomputers and software, had been recognized at academic institutions since at least the early 1980s. By the late 1990s, the pace of hardware and software innovation and increased performance had resulted in a tough reality: the effective lifetime of a modern computer was at most three to four years. Even this short lifetime assumed capable systems administration and upkeep, including regular software upgrades for the operating system and applications.

The harsh reality was that leading universities needed to provide good computing facilities for students and faculty. Ongoing upgrade needs were a fact, as was the need for expert support staff to maintain the equipment, plan, and train the users. Features of the latest software and new devices (such as scanners, color printers and digital cameras) were and are desirable in the academic setting. Demand for centralized services of all types was high and growing.

By the end of the 20th century, email and Web pages at leading universities had achieved infrastructure status. Everything from student registration to coursework happened via email and the Web, and even short outages of central computing facilities could have disastrous impact. At the subject university, the response was to centralize services under a new Chief Information Officer (CIO) position and task this officer with controlling costs, increasing quality of service, and ensuring equity of access to computing for all students and faculty.

Recognizing that budget disparity and autonomy were challenges to the CIO's goals, the university administration's response was to increase centralization. Whereas departmental computing laboratories had been the norm, centralized laboratories would be favored (with funding for departmental computing slashed). Instead of each department, school or college having technology staff dedicated to that unit, the units would turn to the centralized administrative computing unit for assistance. Departments were not forced to utilize centralized services, and many chose to maintain their own separate infrastructure for email, Web pages, tech support, etc. In order to do so, the departments had to possess sufficient budgetary latitude (from grants and many other sources), along with a department chair or dean willing to allocate the needed funds.

The result of this centralization was generally favorable. Those departments with specific needs (and the money to support them) could go their own way. Departments without money or specific needs, which included most of the large departments offering service courses to undergraduates, could utilize more cost-effective centralized services. In turn, those departments would lead the way at integrating laptop computers into their courses.

The CIO envisioned cost savings because of student ownership of laptop computers and increased centralization of facilities. The cost savings after two years, if any, were hard to see and never made public by the administration. In fact, evidence of increased expenditures for computing was available in most departments—and in the student loans of incoming freshmen. Centralized computing facilities and their support infrastructure (staff, software, etc.) did not go away and continued to require costly upgrades. Demand for training and other services, as well as centralized large-scale platforms for statistical and scientific computing, continued to grow. While it seemed logical to assume some cost savings due to better standardization on microcomputing equipment and decreased need for specialized departmental staff, real budgetary figures supporting these cost savings were not made available to support this case study.

Criticism of the Laptop Ownership Requirement

I was frustrated because I already have a laptop (one I'm still paying for), although it's four years old and can't be upgraded to current standards. (Student quote from Li & Newby, 2000)

The implementation of the laptop requirement, along with increased centralization and standardization, met with some resistance, especially from technically proficient faculty. Because of the budgetary control the central administration of the university has over most departments, as well as standards for incoming students, the plan was able to go forward with few changes. Criticism included:

  1. Pedagogy. The utility of laptops (or any computers) for undergraduate education had not been adequately demonstrated, and the fit with some academic programs was not clear.

  2. Cost. At $2000 to $3000 (depending on the model purchased), the laptop computer increased the first-year tuition, room, board and fees total costs for a student by 30–50%.

  3. Longevity. The student laptop was expected to last for all four years of the undergraduate education (and a warranty service for those bought through the university was intended to maintain this functionality). However, four-year-old computers were seldom able to utilize modern software or devices and were difficult or impossible to upgrade.

  4. Infrastructure. While 802.11b wireless was available in some parts of campus, most classrooms had no network connectivity and few or no power outlets for student use. This limited the utility of the computers for many types of applications that faculty could envision.

  5. Support. Little faculty training was included, and there were few incentives for faculty to incorporate laptop use into their courses. At the same time, students were offered almost no training on how to utilize their computer effectively, with little attention to proper ethics or security for computer use.

Overall, however, events proceeded as planned. Faculty upgrades to biology, English and other departments preceded the first semester of laptop-enabled freshmen. The curricula for several large-section freshman-oriented courses were upgraded to include laptop use for science laboratory and writing assignments.

Ten to twenty percent of incoming freshmen were given grants to help cover the cost of their laptop computers, or pay for them entirely. The others were offered some help in getting a student loan to cover the cost of the computer. Part of the grant funding came from proceeds from the laptop sales by the campus, and part came from central university sources.

Use in the Classroom and on Campus

I've seen some students taking notes on their laptops, but I've also seen students using computers in class to surf the Web, engage in instant messaging conversations, and check their email.

People will check their email or play games in class instead of paying attention, annoying the rest of us with their typing. (Student quotes from Li & Newby, 2002)

Some of the best uses of laptop computers in the classroom appeared in the academic units that already had the best computing infrastructure and support. High-technology departments such as computer science, information science, journalism and business had already integrated the use of Web pages and modern microcomputer software and applications into their curricula. In these departments, faculty had access to the same modern infrastructure, and many faculty members had already adapted their courses to utilize it.

Unfortunately, many students at the subject university were unable to benefit from these leading departments. This was either because they did not take courses there, or simply because the first two years or so of the undergraduate education emphasized general liberal arts requirements over specialized courses. These general liberal arts courses were likely to be taught in very large classrooms (more than 100 students), often by teaching assistants or adjunct faculty, and with little integration of laptops.

In those courses where the laptop plan had focused, laptop use was evident. Students were able to engage in writing exercises, science laboratory experiments, and other educational activities. These activities were not previously available or were not as flexible and powerful as they were with the laptops.

Because all incoming freshmen had laptops, prevalence of their use was evident everywhere on campus. Students in libraries and classrooms would use their laptop computers for taking notes and, where available, to access the Internet. Off-campus housing, like on-campus dormitories, offered high-speed network access. Even cafes and other off-campus eateries started to provide power outlet access and 802.11b network connectivity for their patrons. By 2002, most of the campus was covered by 802.11b. Power and workspaces remained hard to find in most parts of campus.

The use of centralized services by these laptop-enabled students somewhat decreased the demand for general-purpose software in public computing laboratories. Demand for special-purpose software and equipment, however, such as multimedia software and scanners, was higher than ever. Student laptop computers came with at most a few hundred dollars worth of software: an operating system, a Web browser, office productivity software (including a word processor), and utilities. A computer in a well-equipped departmental laboratory would often have in excess of $10,000 of software, ranging from statistical applications to modeling, with many high-end peripheral devices.

The demand for centralized email, Web pages, and other server-based facilities continued to grow. So did the demand on the university's already considerable network bandwidth to the outside world, as everything from multimedia email, to Web pages, to peer-to-peer file sharing gained in popularity. Demand for centralized training did not grow much for the first generation of laptop-enabled students, primarily because these students (usually recent high school graduates) were already familiar with email, the Web and office applications.

Student Perceptions

Because I'm so inexperienced with computers, I felt compelled to purchase my laptop from U—thus making it an even more expensive purchase—so that I would be guaranteed assistance in case of any problems.

I've been frustrated because most professors do not require it in class xxxx does not require us to use the computers enough to justify the laptop requirement.

Faculty will need to greatly increase their computer skills to successfully incorporate laptop use in the classroom. Another is the variation in faculty support, some professors seem to think the requirement is unnecessary and therefore have little reason to incorporate laptops into their courses. (Student quotes from Li & Newby, 2002)

A doctoral student in information science at the subject university, in cooperation with the author of this case study, performed research on student perceptions of the laptop requirement (Li & Newby, 2002). The study, first conducted in fall 2001 with a follow-up in spring 2002, gathered qualitative and quantitative data from graduate students and faculty in the school of information and library science, which had historically been a leader in the use of information technology at the subject university.

The school studied was not an accurate mirror of the rest of the university but exhibited many of the same trends. The school implemented its laptop requirement for graduate students one year after the university's requirement, for fall 2001. The research did not address the general undergraduate population, but rather the more specialized graduate population of the school. Nevertheless, the empirical data gathered in the research echo the less formal reports, student newspaper articles, informal interviews, course syllabi and other sources of data used for this case.

The overall perception of the students is that laptops were underutilized in the classroom, and their uses did not justify the expense of the laptop purchase. Students who purchased from the university believed they overpaid and wished they had better guidance to make an informed purchase elsewhere. Students who purchased elsewhere felt uncertain about the support they could get from centralized computing. Students did not see pedagogical benefits to laptops in the classroom and questioned faculty commitment to their use.

Nearly all students (out of 41 responses, from a student population of about 275) were willing to be patient as the school's faculty decided how to integrate laptop use in the classroom. By the end of spring 2002, however, many students had never been required to bring their laptop to the classroom and had not taken courses that had integrated the laptop.

The research also solicited input from the school's 17 full-time faculty, but very little was forthcoming. Analysis of course syllabus materials revealed that of 100 or so course sections offered in the school during the 2001–2002 academic year, only a handful made regular use of laptops in the classroom. Another handful made occasional use, as a replacement for scheduling time teaching in the school's computer laboratory. The vast majority had no explicit laptop requirement.

These negative results are offset somewhat by the phase-in of the laptop requirement for the school. As for the undergraduate requirement for the university as a whole, incoming students were given the requirement, but students already enrolled were not required to purchase a laptop. For the school, most graduate students graduated in two years, resulting in about one-half turnover in the student body every year. Thus, only the second year would see nearly 100% of students with the laptop requirement. Nevertheless, the fact that such a small proportion of course sections have made use of the laptop requirement during the first year is disquieting.


It will probably take several years to assimilate the laptops. We're still just figuring out how they will be most useful.

In the future, many of the students entering the program will have grown up using laptops in their classrooms before they even get to the university level, so I think it will be the norm rather than being a special requirement. (Student quotes from Li & Newby, 2002)

The leading-edge image of the university, along with the value of the education it provides to the people of the state, was served well by the laptop requirement. Significant upgrades to centralized services occurred, awareness and support for the integration of computing into coursework improved, and interested faculty members had good intellectual and practical resources for this integration. Departments with specialized needs were, generally, able to meet those needs as well as they were previously or better. The shift towards increasingly capable centralized resources enabled many departments to eliminate some general-purpose training, facilities and services.

The actual educational impact of the laptop requirement was largely unmeasured and, at least to some extent, immeasurable. In 1998–1999, more than 75% of undergraduates possessed a computer. The laptop requirement meant that students with a computer could bring the computer to class, to the library, etc. Would this portability result in better education? It seemed clear there were several good examples of classroom activities that were enabled or improved when students had a laptop computer. The long-term impact on quality of education, across a four-year undergraduate program, was more difficult to assess.

Annals of Cases on Information Technology
SQL Tips & Techniques (Miscellaneous)
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 367 © 2008-2017.
If you may any questions please contact us: