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An alternative to the college laptop initiative

November 27, 2007, 11:45 am

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More and more colleges and universities these days are offering some kind of program where students who enroll get a computer to use while they are in college. Most of these programs involve giving out laptops, although an increasing number are giving out tablet PC’s. The idea is that students will be enticed to enroll because of the “free” computer offer, then use the computer along with the pre-loaded software throughout their college years, and then typically students get to keep the computer when they graduate. (That last being a nifty way for a college to get around the problem of what to do with outdated equipment.)

It seems like a good idea, but I wonder if giving away a computer upon matriculation is the best way to meet the technology needs of students. These programs focus on the device. Fine, but what if you want to use, or already do use, a computer other than the one the university is giving out? And what if your tastes in technology change, so that the shiny new Dell laptop you got as a freshman no longer cuts it after you discover Ubuntu Linux or OS X when you’re a sophomore? You’re locked in, and you’re less free, not more free.

Since devices come and go at an exponential pace, it seems more sensible for colleges to provide not a device to its students but a high-quality, even world-class infrastructure for computer usage and let the students handle the procurement of a computer on their own.

For example, here’s a package of perks that a college could provide to its students instead of a computer that would make their computer use potentially more productive:

  • Internet and intranet access that is fast (cutting-edge, Internet2 fast), has tons of bandwidth, is rarely if ever down for unscheduled reasons, and is accessible at all points on campus via a secure wireless network.
  • An extension of that wireless network to businesses and hangouts that are near but not on the campus itself, so that students could be on the network while working at that coffee shop just across the street from the math building. Use a whole bunch of Meraki Mini routers to make this cheap and simple.
  • A huge amount of network hard drive space, something like 500 GB per user. Something big enough to archive 4-5 years’ worth of college work in a variety of media formats.
  • Secure FTP/SSH access to that network hard drive that is usable from anywhere.
  • Personal web space on par with what you might spend $100 per month for if you bought it from a server farm in terms of the amount of storage and bandwidth provided. And like the commercial server spaces, that personal web space would be populated with the ability to host web sites and blogs, create subdomains, and create multiple POP and IMAP email accounts (in lieu of MS Exchange email, not in addition to).

And most importantly, offer the freedom to use this first-class campus network in whatever way the student wishes as long as it’s not illegal, doesn’t hog the campus’ resources unnecessarily, and fits within a small set of university guidelines for usage. This is not only doable but currently being done. One large university near here has the policy that they don’t monitor so much what you are doing with the campus network but rigorously monitor how much of the network you are using. Want to play WoW with a bunch of other people over the network? Fine, but you’d better plan on doing it at 2 AM when there’s not many people on the network trying to get actual work done, or else you’ll be locked out.

Then, having set up this network, the college would encourage faculty (through financial or other incentives) to use the campus network to provide the basic “texts” for their courses using free and existing online materials or by writing their own course notes, and getting away from expensive textbooks. If you could eliminate print textbooks for one student taking four classes each semester for a year, that would save the student in the neighborhood of $800, which the student could use to buy a decent laptop computer.

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