Right now we have great discussions in some classes, but if we all have our attention directed at our laptops we will be losing a lot of the interpersonal communication and class participation.
Inside class, discussion may be reduced for everyone concentrates on his or her screen and is busy typing. Outside class, however, interactions may increase for students are free to contact each other when they have an idea via email if they have the wireless connection to the Internet. (Student quotes from Li & Newby, 2002)
Information technology alone was not sufficient for high-quality undergraduate and graduate education. Challenges facing the subject university included eroding budgetary support from the state, the need for renovations to buildings, soaring costs for library materials, and so forth. Faculty and staff salaries in most departments were not competitive with peer institutions. Demand for education, especially undergraduate education, had grown because of population shifts and a growing high school populace.
Despite information technology's role as one factor among many, it was one of few items with immediate understanding and appeal among all the major constituents of the university (students, faculty, staff, administration, state officials, national accrediting agencies and others). Providing ubiquitous computing and networking was, undoubtedly, the near-term future of leading universities. The subject university had taken an early leadership role among public institutions at reaching towards this future.
The laptop implementation and related technology centralization and upgrade described here was likely to produce numerous new challenges, some of which had already emerged by the second year of the laptop requirement. These challenges included:
Software and hardware obsolescence. After only two years of requirements for undergraduate laptop ownership, base requirements for CPU speed and disk drive size doubled. It would be difficult, by the 3rd and 4th year of laptop ownership, to support and service older computers. The software and devices of 2003–2004 might not run effectively, or at all, on the laptop computers of 1999–2000.
Providing upgrades. Students were given almost no training in the daily maintenance of their laptop. Operating system and application upgrades, while available cheaply through university site licenses, might be impractical for students with little training and support. Critical security upgrades were similarly likely to go unapplied.
Campus warranty service for computers purchased through the major manufacturer's program was in demand. As computers get older, warranty service needs increase and could result in increased costs as well as greater potential for poor service. (Consider: at the start of the laptop requirement, 100% of laptops owned by students in the program were less than one year old. But in the steady state, when all students have laptops, the average laptop will be two to three years old.)
Ergonomic challenges were encountered by many students. The campus was not diligent about suggesting external monitors and keyboards for students to use with their laptops while at home. (It did improve dorm furniture to offer better ergonomic positioning for typing, however.) Classrooms were ill equipped to enable students to sit with proper body position to avoid strain, including repetitive strain injuries, while using their computers. Health complaints by students were heard in many classes: lower back pain, wrist strain, eyestrain, and other ailments. There was at least some potential for lawsuits resulting from the lack of appropriate furniture and training for student use of laptop computers.
Lack of cost savings was, as described above, a strong possibility. Despite increased effectiveness and utility of computing on campus, it seemed unlikely that significant decreases in the budget for information technology would occur. While this was not, in itself, a problem, state agencies and administrators with budgetary oversight for information technology expenditures could decide to take other measures to control costs.
Many questions about the specific implementation choices made by the subject university remained, as well. At a fundamental level, requiring a laptop over the cheaper desktop alternative can be questioned. The multinational vendor with which the university contracted for provision of laptops is another decision that could be questioned: were there sufficient cost savings from this vendor? By 2002, the vendor (which has significant control over the particular laptop model available through the university laptop program) had never made the top-end technology available. When combined with twice-yearly updates to the model availability, this has resulted in offerings that were badly outdated and not favorably priced by the end of the update cycle.
The notion of standardization for campus computing was difficult, and it seemed that the CIO's goals for standardization were potentially unattainable. While the single vendor was, in fact, the choice of the majority of incoming students (rather than buying a computer elsewhere), there were at least four different models sold to students per academic year. (The models were a medium- and high-end laptop, and both were updated at least once during the academic year as technologies changed.) Thus, the steady state expectation (after four years) is that at least 16 different models would have been sold and in widespread use. (In addition, a similar variety of desktop models would have been deployed to departments and computing laboratories.) It was hoped that the vendor would continue to make repair and support of the older models viable and cost effective, but this is yet to be seen. Furthermore, the possibility of changing vendors existed for a future time.
The overall quality of centralized information technology services was subject to debate. As mentioned above, training for new students' use of their laptop computers was extremely limited—less than 3 hours in the summer before their first semester. The nature and variety of demands that students (and faculty) would make on the centralized support unit was not immediately clear. Academic computing provided significant services for students as part of the efforts described here, including a 24-hour telephone support hotline, some 24-hour computing laboratories, and better cooperation with administrative computing and the registrar to ensure all students had a unified login and password to services. Nevertheless, growing pains and unanticipated events were anticipated. Challenges in the first two years included student misuse of the campus network, high-tech cheating, and lack of awareness of security risks to networked computers.