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In 2004, Winona State University transitioned its laptop lease program from a standard PC to a convertible tablet, resulting in one of the largest mandated tablet deployments in higher education at the time. Armed with a good price from our vendor, we were able to make the transition without increasing the lease price for students or altering program features and services. Because the model was a convertible tablet that could be used in either standard laptop or tablet mode, the tablet features were simply promoted as value added. The attitude at the time among laptop program decision-makers was, “If we can maintain our edge by offering new tablet features without changing the program, why not do it?”

Early indications were that the tablet features were popular with instructors, especially in STEM fields that relied heavily on board work and overhead transparencies in class. WSU invested in DyKnow to assist these instructors and expand the collaborative capabilities of tablets in the classroom. Faculty also began using digital ink to develop online course materials and evaluate student assignments. Students began using MS OneNote to take notes in and out of class. Overall, our transition to tablets was smooth and did seem to add value.

Today, we are considering a move back to a standard laptop model and discontinuing our support of the tablet.  Why change? Here is my take on why this is under consideration, with reasons listed in decreasing order of importance:

  1. The Cost Gap. The gap in cost between a convertible tablet and a similarly configured standard laptop has increased over the years. For the price of our current tablet (Toshiba Portege M700), we could probably be providing students with a standard laptop with performance and features that exceed the tablet model in some key areas (e.g., graphics processing). Taking another approach, we could be providing students with a less expensive standard laptop that meets minimum specifications, perhaps allowing us to either lower the lease price or add value in other areas of the program (e.g., software, support). As we enter the worst budget crisis in state history, this option may be quite appealing to stakeholders.
  2. The Mobility Trade-off. Tablet functionality has become more closely aligned with mobility over the years. In our laptop RFP last spring, only one vendor presented a convertible tablet with a screen larger than 12″ and that company is now out of business. There is much to be gained from emphasizing mobility in our laptop program. Many instructors use their laptops in class, in their offices, at home, and when traveling. Our students are not only mobile themselves, but are preparing to enter an increasingly mobile workplace. However, concessions must be made to achieve greater mobility. The laptop screen and keyboard are smaller and more difficult to use, particularly for older faculty. Tablet graphics processing is insufficient for various productivity and entertainment applications. These are the primary workstations for students and faculty who must be comfortable using their laptops for long periods of time and for a wide variety of tasks. Surveys of students and instructors indicate a clear split in preference for a heavier, larger desktop-replacement versus a more portable laptop. Employees appear divided down the middle, whereas the majority of students want greater mobility and this preference becomes more pronounced over time. For last year’s RFP, we decided that we could not support two PC models cost effectively. Many employees have addressed usability issues using external monitors and keyboards, but are unhappy about covering this unexpected cost. If we must select a single model again this year, there is a good chance that mobility will lose out to usability and performance.
  3. The Mixed Laptop Environment. WSU has always offered both a PC and Mac laptop model. Thus, there is no guarantee that all students in a particular course will have tablets. This is an obstacle for faculty who want to use tools like DyKnow, the power of which are optimized when all students have their own tablet. Although we address this by asking Mac students to install Boot Camp, it has been enough of a hurdle to put off many faculty and slow adoption. Our decision to maintain the tablet will be based mainly on end user applications versus the more compelling collaborative applications that could really transform learning. This leads to what might be the final deciding factor.
  4. Preference for the Mouse and Keyboard. Setting innovative tools like DyKnow aside and looking at end-user applications, taking notes in MS OneNote and inking in MS Office tools emerged at WSU as the most common uses of the pen as an input device. Instructors and students who use their tablets to take notes and grade papers regularly swear by them and those who don’t, don’t. A good conservative estimate based on a survey administered last spring is that 25-35% of our tablet owners use digital ink regularly. There is a third group of users who don’t use digital ink daily, but absolutely love to use it on ocassion. The pen is great when you need it, but many people don’t seem to need it that often. Perhaps they don’t know that they need it and this is a training problem. Perhaps they would like to use it more frequently, but are bothered by human factors issues. Maybe they have tried it, decided that they really don’t need it that often, and are more effective using the mouse and keyboard instead. I will dig into this in another post, but this will not change the current perception that, since adoption in 2004, the number of regular tablet users has remained relatively low and perhaps WSU could do without digital ink.

As we move forward some of these factors might change and new information might come to light. I am looking forward to the conversation and will keep you posted. I am guessing that we are not the only laptop university engaged in this sort of discussion.



In Stage One of our review of the Winona State University Laptop Program, faculty, staff, and students gathered this spring for several open discussions that helped clarify questions, concerns, and opportunities. After reading the summary of our activities thus far and our plans for the next stages of the review, I found myself reflecting on several memorable moments from the listening sessions.

  • In the midst of a discussion about the potential of laptops in the classroom to distract otherwise attentive students, one faculty member suggested that simply walking around the room can change the social dynamic positively. She lamented that many classrooms do not allow this freedom of movement and wondered whether smarter classroom design would facilitate smarter laptop use. The EDUCAUSE ebook on learning spaces came to mind. I think we have all known for a long time that the answer is a big, “yes.” I am looking forward our upcoming review of both the formal and informal learning spaces on campus.
  • My favorite comment came from a staff member who joked that administrators should thank their lucky stars for the Laptop Program because it allows employees to take their work home with them. She estimated that her laptop is largely responsible for the additional two hours of work per day that she gives to WSU. All joking aside, this is an important and relatively unexamined consequence of mobile, ubiquitous computing in higher education. In our quest to provide 24-7 access to our students, we are also promoting the expectation that employees should be “always on.”
  • In our discussions with student leaders, I was struck by their very thoughtful and knowledgable approach to the issues. They raised all of the tough questions in a respectful and professional manner. They applied business, marketing, and other concepts expertly. Overall, they were excellent collaborative partners in this stage of the review. Reflecting back, I am now struck by just how this struck me. In higher education, I think we tend to underestimate our students’ abilities. Perhaps this stems from the traditional “parent-child” relationship schema that still holds fast for many faculty and administrators. We think we know what’s best for students at times when they don’t. In fact, what appears to be student apathy is probably a lack of understanding due to poor communication on our part. It may also reflect the learned helplessness that often results when exposed to unpredictable and uncontrollable change. I think these listening sessions did more to educate faculty, staff, and administrators than students.  
  • The laptop is one important component of a larger, integrated learning environment. I think just about everyone who attended a listening session understood this. I can’t recall anyone arguing that we should abandon the program and return to shared computer labs or some other, lesser form of ubiquitous computing. If anything, attendees argued that we should be expanding our academic use of laptops and improving the learning environment to better support laptop use. As expected, cost appeared to be of greatest concern to students and will be a major focus of the next stage of the review.


In the second of two posts inspired by a recent article in the LA Times describing Silicon Valley companies moving to “topless” meetings in which laptops are banned, I try to capture the issues by taking the perspective of a teacher or meeting convener who has looked out over too many groups busily attending to their laptops and cell phones. In the first post, I took the perspective of someone who has endured too many boring, unproductive classes and meetings. It was surprising how easily the two stories could be transposed. What does that mean?

Here is what I imagine goes through the heads of typical teachers and meeting conveners when faced with a room of text messaging, YouTube browsing, Facebook editing, email checking students or employees.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude and I really do understand how technology has changed our lives, why your laptop is an important tool, and how it can be used to support learning, but if you’re going to sit through this entire meeting with your laptop open, please make sure you:

  • Come to the meeting ready to participate in the scheduled task, discussion, or group activity.
  • Don’t distract anyone, including me with what’s happening on your laptop screen, what’s coming out of your speakers, or your nonverbal responses to that funny story on Web.
  • Don’t ask questions later about what you missed in the meeting, what tasks were assigned to you, or what decisions were made that affect you.

I’ve come to this meeting prepared, I’ve provided you with information and materials ahead of time so that you could prepare yourself, and I’ve made it very clear to you why your participation in this meeting is important for both of us. If you still decide to pay no attention to the meeting activities and check your email instead, then I would ask you to reconsider why you are sitting in this room today. Please don’t insult me by telling me that it’s because you were forced to be here, that you’re a good multi-tasker, or that I just don’t understand technology. If you pretend to “multi-task,” I might not say anything to you, but you should know that you aren’t fooling me.”

“Although I may look like a Luddite who doesn’t come close to matching Solitaire’s level of excitement and I certainly have hosted the occasional boring, unproductive meeting, the truth is that I am trying very hard to engage you and I care very deeply about the work we are all here to accomplish. I am not simply going through the motions and I am not a meeting junky. I see no indication that you’ve prepared for this meeting, that you’re invested in what we’re doing, or that there’s much chance of that changing in the near future. I don’t want to cause a fuss and embarrass you, so I am just going to let you sit there quietly and do whatever it is that you’re doing until the meeting is over. I’m fully capable of conducting this meeting without you and working with those who are interested in participating. If I see some sign that you want to participate, I’ll engage you.”

“You should know that I actually wish things were different. I’m tired of asking you to come to these meetings when you provide so little input. I also appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to leave the meeting feeling that it was such a waste of your time. I would much rather spend the time we have together productively and I’m willing to make a deal with you. I will come to the next meeting fully prepared to engage with you if you promise to:

  • Prepare for our meeting. I can tell immediately when you’re unprepared. Spend some time getting ready for the meeting. Read the meeting materials. Do the homework. If I’ve asked you to do some online discussion before the meeting that would allow us to start our face-to-face work together at a deeper level, then do it. If you aren’t prepared for the meeting, then don’t attend.  
  • Prepare me for our meeting. I’m not a mind reader. If you don’t understand why we’re meeting and what’s expected of you, let me know. Give me some suggestions and feedback. Start participating before the meeting. What do you want to get out of this meeting? What’s the best way to make that happen?
  • Relax about device prohibition. First, I am going to ask you to engage in some activities that will not require a laptop for taking notes and I may even ask you to use a Sharpie, Crayon, or some chalk. Deal with it. Second, set your communication devices to silent or vibrate and don’t worry about incoming calls unless you think they’re really more important than what we’re doing in the meeting. If a potentially important call comes through, don’t answer your phone in the meeting. Ignore it, then politely excuse yourself and call the person back from outside the meeting room. Third, remember that my time is valuable too. If you are not participating in the meeting and have decided that you would rather do something else, don’t distract me or others. Better yet, quitely leave the meeting.
  • Develop your skills. Nothing personal, but your learning/teamwork skills could be better. Becoming a better learner and team member is a matter of continuous improvement. There are all sorts of methods and tools that you can use during meetings to participate effectively. If you need ideas or assistance developing your skills, ask me, your colleagues, or those in your organization who can help you learn. Don’t be afraid to try something new at the next meeting, but please make sure it’s something productive and positive. I don’t so much like the “Devil’s Advocate” method, but if you can use it without deflating the group, go for it. The bottom line is that we have met in this room to work together.

In the grand scheme of things, we have so little time together and it’s so difficult in today’s world to get people to sit down in the same place at the same time. Let’s make the most of it.”

Yours truly,

Ken the Teacher/Convener 

A recent article in the LA Times described Silicon Valley companies moving to “topless” meetings where laptops are banned. Whether it’s a classroom or a conference room, the perception of some teachers and conveners is that people aren’t really present unless they disconnect their devices and give their undivided attention to the meeting. In a two-part post, I will try to describe this situation from the perspective of both a student or employee who has endured too many disorganized and unproductive classes and meetings and as a teacher or convener who has looked out over too many students and attendees engrossed in other things. 

Here is what I imagine goes through the heads of typical students and employees when informed that a particular class or meeting will be topless.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude and I really do enjoy interacting with people, but if you are going to ask me to stop what I’m doing and put down the tools that I’m using to do the things that are important to me, then please have something interesting to:

  • Tell me that you couldn’t tell me as well via memo, email message, or online post.
  • Show me that you couldn’t show me as well by directing me to a book or online video, podcast, learning module, demonstration, or simulation.
  • Engage in with me that we couldn’t do as well individually.

If any one of these things are true, then I will gladly give you my full attention. If none of these things are true, then I would ask you to reconsider why you have asked me to meet with you. Please don’t insult me by telling me that it’s because you are the boss, that you don’t trust me to read/learn/do things myself, or that you don’t have time to learn how to use the tools that I use every day to coordinate, communicate, and collaborate. If you try to force me to pay attention to you, I might obey and give you what looks like my attention, but you should know that my mind is elsewhere.”

“Although I may look like a device addict and I certainly have read the occasional text message when I should have been paying attention to something else, the truth is that I am not really distracted by my devices. I am simply choosing them instead of you because I don’t understand why I am here. I have no stake in this meeting. I didn’t even know what was on the agenda until I walked in and sat down. So far, you haven’t engaged me in any activity that is meaningful to me and that I couldn’t do outside of this meeting. I don’t want to cause a fuss and embarrass you, so I am just going to sit here quietly and do something else, until it’s clear to me that my presence is important. I am fully capable of giving primary attention to my instant messages while monitoring the stream of activity in this room. If I hear something that sounds interesting or important, I will stop what I am doing and attend to you.”

“You should know that I actually wish things were different. I’m tired of coming to these meetings and getting so little out of them. I also appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to look out over a group of people who don’t seem to be paying attention to anything you’re saying. I would much rather spend the time we have together productively and I’m willing to make a deal with you. I will come to the next meeting fully prepared to engage with you if you promise to:

  • Prepare for our meeting. I can tell immediately when you’re unprepared. Spend some time planning for the meeting. If your plan includes spending over 25% of our time together telling me something, then you are not prepared. If there’s something that we could accomplish before the meeting that would allow us to start our face-to-face work together at a deeper level, then let’s do it. There are some very good tools out there for facilitating this work online. Let’s use them. If you aren’t prepared for the meeting, then cancel it.  
  • Prepare me for our meeting. I am not a meeting addict. I am so tired of attending fruitless meetings and I have no reason to believe that the next one will be any different. You’re dealing with a biased and reluctant participant here. Help me to change. How are we going to spend our time together? What do you hope to accomplish and what’s my role? Help me see that my presence in this meeting will actually be important for both of us.
  • Relax about device prohibition. First, I use my laptop, not paper, to take notes: deal with it. Second, there are messages that I might receive during our time together that are more important than this meeting. Like you, I have a life outside of this room and sometimes it intrudes. I will keep my phone on stun, my audio muted on my laptop, and minimize the intrusions. Third, remember that my time is valuable too. If you are engaging me, I won’t have time to check my email. If you are not engaging me, then I am going to do something that I value. I understand completely that this behavior shouldn’t distract others in the meeting who you might be engaging.
  • Develop your skills. Nothing personal, but your teaching/facilitation skills could be better. Becoming a better meeting facilitator and teacher is a matter of continuous improvement. There are all sorts of methods and tools that you can use during meetings to engage me and support our work together. If you need ideas or assistance developing your skills, reach out to those in your organization who can help you learn. Don’t be afraid to try something new at the next meeting, but please make sure it’s not just that warm, fuzzy stuff you learned at your last leadership workshop. I like socializing and team-building, but the bottom line is that we have met in this room to work together.

In the grand scheme of things, we have so little time together and it’s so difficult in today’s world to get people to sit down in the same place at the same time. Let’s make the most of it.”

Yours truly,

Ken the Student/Employee 

The Tablet PC has potential for transforming the laptop classroom, but what if not every student in class has a tablet? Although some schools (e.g., Villanova) limit students to one laptop model, many others see choice as an indispensable feature of their laptop mandate programs. As the laptop market diverges with its emphasis on either power or portability, it will become increasingly difficult to please everyone with just one model. Currently, WSU students and faculty can choose between two laptops: an MPC (Gateway) M285 convertible tablet or an Apple MacBook (more). Because tablet functionality has become aligned with portability, with most vendors not offering anything larger than a 12″ tablet, one of the possible outcomes of our 2008 Laptop RFP is the introduction of a second PC choice: a larger, more powerful, non-tablet model in addition to a thin-and-light or ultra-portable convertible tablet.

Such a decision would have an impact on our plans for supporting the use of tablets in the classroom. WSU is already a mixed laptop environment. Although the majority of our students currently opt for the tablet and Macs tend to be more popular with certain majors, WSU instructors can already expect any class roster to include a substantial number of Mac users. The addition of a traditional, desktop-replacement laptop as a third choice would further reduce the number of tablets in a given classroom. Tools like Microsoft OneNote retain their value as end-user applications in a mixed environment. However, the value of groupware applications like DyKnow Vision and Monitor would need to be revisited. Although the full power of DyKnow to transform a laptop classroom is unleashed when everyone is using a tablet, it still has considerable value if just the instructor and a group of students have tablets. 

  • Instructors can capture their own board work and monitor student screens. Instructors can still use all of the features of DyKnow Vision and Monitor themselves to display and capture their own work and monitor/control student laptop activity. Although instructors would be able to approximate this using a shared OneNote session, this would not allow students to take private notes and annotate the instructor’s work. They would also not be able to replay the instructor’s notes stroke-for-stroke, a feature of DyKnow with considerable educational value. Finally, OneNote does not have any capacity for student screen activity monitoring/control.
  • Group tablet-based activities are still possible. Although some collaborative work will no longer be possible, many group activities can still be conducted if at least one student in each group has a tablet. For example, a group can elect a scribe and work together on a problem. Although instructors will not be able to depend on this, the chances are good that enough students in any given class will have tablets. There are also other collaborative features of DyKnow that do not depend on digital ink (e.g., polling).  
  • Students can capture, annotate, and replay instructor notes. Students without tablets will still be able to use their keyboards and pointing devices to annotate the instructor’s work. They also will be able to save, replay, and annotate their notebooks at any time after class.

I think DyKnow Vision and Monitor will remain valuable tools for the laptop classroom, even in a mixed laptop environment. Using Boot Camp and running DyKnow in the Windows partition, WSU Mac users were able to participate in DyKnow class sessions quite easily last term. The same will be true for students who opt for a traditional PC if that choice is introduced. It will probably be essential for instructors interested in using DyKnow to opt for a tablet, but I think this can be communicated effectively through an informational campaign and training. Helping students determine which of the three models is best for them will be the big challenge.


With close to 7500 convertible tablets deployed across campus, should WSU change course and move away from digital ink? WSU has had a fully implemented laptop mandate program since 2003. Students and faculty lease one of two laptop models: an MPC (Gateway) M285 or an Apple MacBook (more). The majority opt for the PC and everyone receives a new laptop every two years. We standardized on the convertible Tablet PC in 2004. Three months after the first batch of tablets were distributed, we asked faculty to describe how they were using digital ink. Approximately 50% reported using their tablets to do one of the following: 

  • Mark up Word documents (e.g., student papers) outside of class
  • Annotate PowerPoint slides in class
  • Use OneNote in class in place of an overhead projector

In spring 2007, we invested in DyKnow Vision and Monitor. This fall, we rolled out Office 2007 and the new version of OneNote, a much improved app. In short, our move to tablet computing has been relatively smooth. We did not need to adjust the cost of the lease, the move was well-received by students and faculty, it helped our laptop program maintain its edge over the past few years, and it opened up opportunities for academic innovation. 

This semester, we are preparing for a laptop vendor RFP. One of the major questions on the minds of the members of the RFP team is, “Should WSU continue to standardize on the convertible Tablet PC?” We are currently gathering feedback from faculty and students. Here is what’s on my mind today: 

  • Tablet computing is not a flash in the pan. I always feel silly saying this because it’s so obvious to me, but I feel as though I sometimes need to defend digital ink as a serious educational technology. According to the 2007 Gartner Hype Cycle for Higher Education, the Tablet PC is steadily climbing up the “Slope of Enlightenment” to the “Plateau of Productivity.” Good tablet tools are maturing. DyKnow Vision is a very exciting application, designed not to simply support lecture capture/annotation and later playback like Tegrity, but to allow instructors to transform the classroom and engage students in collaborative learning activities that would be very difficult to manage otherwise. We have only started to tap the potential of OneNote 2007 as an academic application. Inking on Web pages is coming (see Silverlight InkPresenter). Good practices are being disseminated. There is still a lot to be learned and gained from a university-wide tablet deployment. If innovation is one of the major goals of the Laptop Program, then I think returning to standard laptops would be a step backward.
  • An all-tablet, cross-platform campus may soon be possible. WSU is a cross-platform environment. Mac users do not have tablet functionality and there are enough students who opt for MacBooks that the probability of having at least one Mac user in class is relatively high. This complicates an instructor’s decision to adopt tools like DyKnow for classroom use, although students with MacBooks configured with Boot Camp can run DyKnow in the Windows partition (albeit without the stylus). This would seem to be a strike against the tablet. However, a Mac tablet may not be far off. The ModBook, an after-market hardware modification, was demonstrated at Macworld Expo in January and there are rumors circulating that Apple already has a tablet of its own. Tools like DyKnow and OneNote are also still quite useful using the keyboard instead of the stylus.
  • Changes to the Laptop Program take two years to implement. Half of all WSU students and faculty receive a new laptop every summer, meaning that any change to the laptop program takes two years to implement fully. It would take two years to phase the convertible tablet out and two years to bring it back if we change our minds again. These transition periods can be difficult for IT and elearning support units.
  • Changing the direction of the Laptop Program is a strategic decision. All too often, I think decisions like this are made in the heat and chaos of the moment, without adequate consultation, representation, and collaboration. Our decision about whether or not to continue with tablets should not rest on the shoulders of the RFP team. It’s a university decision that must take faculty and student input into consideration and align with the university’s mission, vision, and strategic goals. Moving away from tablets may allow us to reduce the cost of the lease and offer more than one PC option (e.g., an ultra-portable and a desktop-replacement). Continuing with tablets may allow us to remain distinctive, teach our students new skills, and explore new educational applications of digital ink. How do these outcomes (e.g., choice, cost, distinctiveness, innovation) stack up as strategic priorities for the Laptop Program? For WSU? How do they align with WSU goals and objectives? Most importantly, how do you engage students, university administrators, and academic leadership in a process that has historically been left up to IT?

More on this journey later and please don’t hesitate to comment if you have any words of wisdom.


Is smashing a student’s cell phone with a hammer in class a good idea? Articles like Samuel Freedman’s recent piece in the NYT, “Class(room) War: Teacher versus Technology,” paint a very depressing and inaccurate picture of our students as irresponsible or unwitting device addicts who don’t appreciate the value of a good, old-fashioned lecture. He glorifies instructors who waste time and intimidate students in class by staging demonstrations of their disdain for student devices. My guess is that all campuses endure these melodramas, but they are few and far between.

We have an instructor who ceremoniously disconnects the classroom wireless access point at the start of each class period. Another has earned the nickname, “Professor Click,” because he tells his students that he wants to hear the sound of their laptops clicking shut. I can imagine the confused looks on first year students’ faces as they sit down in Professor Click’s classroom and proudly pull their shiny new laptops out of their backpacks, ready to take notes, find relevant information on the Web, engage in all sorts of laptop-supported learning activities, and maybe chat a bit with a new friend in another classroom or instant message their mothers that they are sitting in class at that very moment, only to be told to close the lid.

These cases notwithstanding, I think Freedman describes a rather minor skirmish in a much larger conflict. There is a deepening political struggle in higher education that is tied to the advance of information technology, but isn’t about cell phones and laptops in classrooms. Most instructors set clear expectations that stop short of prohibiting devices that could serve legitimate academic purposes. This is just one of the many classroom management issues that most instructors handle calmly and professionally without resorting to the use of hammers. The vast majority of our students respect those rules because they are in class to learn.

It also has nothing to do with competing for students’ attention. Students not paying attention to instructors in class is nothing new. You could be on fire and some students wouldn’t notice. This has never had much to do with distraction. As a student, I was not “distracted” by the crossword puzzle that I worked on during class. It did not lure me away from a riveting lecture to which I was desperately trying to attend. I chose to attend to the crossword instead of the instructor. Today’s students are not distracted by instant messaging and Facebook; they are choosing them over the instructor consciously and purposefully and this is driving some instructors absolutely nuts. Much of why students behave this way is also not new. Some students find certain teaching styles too painful to endure for extended periods. Some don’t find the overcrowded conditions in many college classrooms very conducive to learning. Some don’t understand or see the relevance of what’s being discussed at that moment and figure they can study it later if needed. Some already know the material or feel confident that they can learn it quicker and easier from the textbook or online. Some students are not in class to learn content at all, but rather to learn what it is that they need to learn later when they are with their study group or alone in the quiet of the library. There is nothing new here. Take laptops and cell phones away and these classroom realities remain.

Some believe that new devices have brought new problems to the classroom. I do think there are a few, but I also think this has been greatly exaggerated by those who fear change. Students want to be engaged in the classroom and engaged students do not play online poker or instant message their friends during class. An EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research survey of over 20,000 undergraduates indicated that students do not necessarily want more technology used during class time. In a recent study at WSU, over 1800 students reported spending an average of 78% of a typical 50-minute class period giving their undivided attention to their instructor, slightly more than they thought was required, and an average of 22% of their time engaged in nonacademic activities on their laptops. They reported that they did not find the nonacademic use of laptops by other students in class particularly distracting and they agreed that instructors should set clear guidelines for laptop use. They reported that their decision to use their laptops for nonacademic purposes was not because they felt powerless to resist, they were effectively multi-tasking, or they were completely disinterested in what was happening in class. These are not the responses you would expect from device addicts.

So what’s new? I will leave my thoughts for another post and encourage comments. I think the larger conflict and what’s really bothering some instructors has more to do with the redistribution of power and authority and what Larry Lessig described in a recent TED talk as the return of a read-write culture. Technology is helping to change the students that instructors face in today’s classrooms in ways that most colleges and universities are only beginning to address.


These are my notes from the EDUCAUSE 2007 Annual Conference session, “Using Student-Centered Technologies to Enhance the Curriculum,” by Chris Penniman (Director of Instructional Technology, Director for Instructional Technology, Connecticut College) presented in Seattle on October 24th, 2007.

In this session, Chris described a research program at Connecticut College called the Digital Enhanced Learning Initiative (DELI) that focused on how students use common technologies for instructional purposes. In the study, students in selected classes were provided with a “technology kit” that included such items as a digital camera, iPod, and all necessary peripherals. Students and instructors participated in an orientation session where the data gathering expectations of the study were set. Students then reported out during the semester via focus groups. Chris shared some interesting examples of student work and provided some preliminary results indicating that the technology may be enhancing learning and improving overall retention.

I attended Chris’ presentation primarily because I am very interested in what she called student-centered technologies: those tools that most of today’s students bring with them to campus (e.g., MP3 player, cell phone, camera). Although she provided all DELI students with the same tools, the underlying assumption was that such tools could eventually be integrated into the curriculum based on the expectation that all students already own them. This raises familiar issues that institutions with existing device mandates have been wrestling with for years, such as the digital divide and the cost of supporting a wide variety of personally-owned devices. WSU is a laptop mandate campus that requires most of its students to lease one of two laptop models from the institution, paying $1000 per year. Are we approaching the point where these devices are pervasive, affordable, and standardized enough that we no longer need to mandate specific devices or ask students to purchase devices from us?

It seems that there are still compelling reasons to maintain an existing device mandate program. I think it’s still the best way to ensure…

  • Standardization on a specific hardware configuration that meets predetermined academic needs, creating a predictable and supportable academic computing environment.
  • Continuity of functionality and performance across a student’s entire career, including maintenance, updates, and technical support.
  • Complete ubiquitous access for all students at all times.

However, I am looking forward to the day when all of these goals can be achieved by relying on personally-owned equipment that students are free to select themselves and bring with them to campus.  I think we are getting closer.