The Laptop Program
I mentioned the other day, in talking about online high schools and Idaho’s plan for online courses, that my alma mater ran a laptop program while I was there. A fellow alum suggested that I write about that, so why not?
They started the mandatory program in 1999 – every freshman had to have a laptop, and the school offered one at fairly steep discount (especially considering the software on it; these days it includes Maple, Photoshop, a CAD program, and a few other mid-to-high-cost items). What drove the idea is not something I’m going to get into; there are probably as many motivations as there were people pushing for the initiative, and as many counter-arguments as there were people pushing back. Either way, it happened, and so what the faculty did with it is more important at this point.
Adoption in the freshman courses, especially the more technically oriented ones, was fairly good. The physics program switched over its MBL design to the laptops rather than the existing (frankly ancient) desktops. Math recitations were computer-oriented before this even started, so the change was fairly easy. I can’t speak to the engineering courses personally, never having taken them, but I heard that many of the intro courses used the laptops well. Humanities and social science courses were slower to adapt. I assume they faced little pressure to do so. It was an engineering school, after all.
Where the program suffered was in the upperclass years. Computer usage in sophomore-level classes was scattered. Professors in Junior- and Senior-level courses ended up saying things like “Oh that’s right, you all have laptops now.” Graduate courses? Forget it. Building technology into the curriculum of the institute as a whole seems not to have been a major goal; if it was, it’s one that was never achieved or even approached while I was there.
In terms of outside reputation, the laptop program was effective. Newspaper articles were written, the school showed up on “most-wired” lists, and the school’s PR umbrella generally expanded. Student responses to opinion surveys of the system were generally favorable. In terms of educational effectiveness, there seems to be little evidence either way. I’m fairly sure there was no consideration at the institutional level of doing any educational effectiveness studies on this matter. I was involved with the physics education research group and I hope that we would have heard about something like that if it happened.
Summary: In terms of providing a low-cost and fairly decent laptop, replacing some of the older computer labs, and getting the school some press, I have to say that the program seems to have worked very well. In terms of educational impact, I’m not sure there was any.
For those interested in how sausage is made (or just finding out the name of the school):