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):


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on February 1, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks for this! My freshman year was the first year they offered laptops (they weren’t required, but offered) and had some special classes for the students with laptops (for example, you could take Calc II “laptop” or the “regular” Calc II), but it wasn’t required. I didn’t have a laptop, so I wouldn’t have been able to take those courses anyway.

    My observations were similar to yours–courses in the freshman classes were generally quick to adapt to the “universal” presence of laptops, sophomore classes somewhat less so, and for junior- and senior-level classes they were all but nonexistent. (That first year, of course, students at those levels wouldn’t have had laptops anyway.)

    At the time I had some concerns, mostly math-related: I’d found that students who relied more on graphing calculators and programs like Maple were less able to do the actual math on their own, less adept at arithmetic, and tended to have a shaky grasp (at best) of the concepts behind the problems they were doing. This may be unfair of me: it’s possible that I just didn’t encounter students who did, or that the courses weren’t as well-taught as they could have been. Nonetheless, it’s a concern of mine. At the same time, however, I found that in the astrophysics class I took senior year, I wished I’d been more adept with Maple, since–for one particular homework problem–my fellow students and I had all done what the professor called “a heroic attempt at algebra” when, according to him, we really should have just turned to a program like Maple at some point. (“A Heroic Attempt at Algebra” will be the name of my first album.) I’d hope that, as the laptop program progressed, higher-level courses would have involved a GREATER use of programs like Maple, since there comes a point where, no matter how tremendous your understanding of math, you need a computer program to help you process your data.

    I’m not sure how the humanities programs–I think specifically of literature classes–could incorporate laptops. Do you have ideas? All that is occurring to me is how much I hate reading long works on a computer screen. Social sciences I can see: again, processing data well is crucial, and laptops would be excellent for teaching that.

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