May 1998 // Case Studies
Notebook Universities:
Creating a Technology-Intensive Learning Environment
by Ray Brown
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Ray Brown "Notebook Universities:
Creating a Technology-Intensive Learning Environment" The Technology Source, May 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The laptop computer has enabled me to work on my assignments using word processing, PowerPoint presentations, research from the Web, and to communicate with my professors and classmates through e-mail, at my convenience, both on and off campus. —Senior student

Having a notebook computer in my hands has raised the level of my academic performance. Every day I take notes on it for class. I also am able to prepare presentations on PowerPoint and write papers on Word. I have begun to put together a CD-ROM portfolio that I will use as a resume when I go job hunting. I truly feel that having access to a notebook computer daily will give me an advantage in the real world. —Junior student

...I have not had a computer at my house and it has always been difficult to access them on campus because of the sometimes limited availability. The computer has made it much quicker and easier for me to complete homework assignments, and thanks to the students now having access to e-mail, it is much easier to keep in contact with our professors and other students. Having the computer and access to the Internet on and off campus has opened myself and all other students to a wealth of information… —Senior student

... I really had doubts right away as to how much I would be using it, but it has become very essential in my learning process. I use it to gain knowledge from the WWW, to communicate effectively with people on- and off-campus, and to answer questions I may have dealing with any subject matter. I have been able to access important information that has been needed for almost all of my classes....I feel that the opportunity to use these notebook computers has given me an advantage ...over other students when it comes to entering the job market after college. —Junior student

Over the past several years, I have collected data on institutions that either provide computers to their incoming students or include computer ownership as a requirement for matriculation. Responding to rapid changes in hardware and software, a growing number of universities are creating technology-intensive campuses requiring universal computer access. Providing students and faculty with notebook computers can facilitate integration of e-mail and Web-based resources into the learning process.

Clarkson University (Potsdam, NY), Bentley College (Waltham, MA), Drew University (Madison, NJ), and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (Newark, NJ) were among the first institutions to either require purchase of computers or provide desktop computers to entering students in the 1980s. A number of campuses have made a transition from desktop computers to notebook computers (Brown, 1998). Drew University’s Computer Initiative began in 1984 with a requirement for desktop computers. The first notebook computer, the Zenith 181, was specified as the standard at Drew in 1988. Bentley College began issuing desktops to all freshmen in 1985. Four years later, students were given an option to either rent or buy their computers. In 1995, Bentley students were required to purchase their computers.

During the 1990s, notebook computers became the most popular on campuses with new universal computer requirements. Eleven institutions, beginning with George Fox University in 1991, started issuing notebook computers to successive freshman classes. In this way, a campus becomes a notebook university over a period of several years. Wake Forest University, West Virginia Wesleyan University, and Seton Hall University all follow this model.

In 1993, the University of Minnesota-Crookston was the first institution to distribute the same model of notebook computer to all students and faculty. Three or four years passed before Valley City State University and Mayville State University in North Dakota, Waldorf College in Iowa, and Clayton College and Floyd College in Georgia joined the ranks of notebook campuses.

Alternative Implementation Models

Resmer, Mingle and Oblinger (1995) identify three models for universal access programs. The Textbook Model refers to situations where the student makes the purchasing decisions. Students have flexibility in terms of purchase and may decide to share computing resources with other students. In the Departmental Model, decisions are based on departmental expectations rather than institutional needs. With the Single Vendor/Machine Model, an institution works with one firm and requires all students to use the same computer.

These categories can be modified to clarify distinctions among notebook universities. Institutions can:

  1. establish a required minimum notebook standard,
  2. provide notebooks by program,
  3. provide notebooks to entering freshmen,
  4. or distribute notebooks to all students and faculty at the same time.

Each of these options offers interesting implications for planning, learning, and support.

Required Minimum Notebook Standard

An institution can set minimum levels of computing capability through agreed upon hardware and software standards. The standard is typically defined by an academic program, with students required to purchase notebook computers with a minimum level of microprocessor, RAM, and hard drive space. Columbia University’s Business School, North Dakota State University’s Department of Architecture, the University of Oklahoma College of Engineering, and Villanova’s College of Commerce and Finance are four institutions that follow this model.

Once the minimum standard is specified, the institution may provide students with the option to purchase computers through an on-campus source like the bookstore. The institution may also encourage students to purchase their computers from vendors in the community or through mail-order firms.

Setting a required minimum standard probably carries the lowest risk to an institution in the short term. Faculty are able to design courses based on assumptions about student technology capability, and it is the student’s responsibility to find technology resources. The model may also be easier politically to implement for students in professional programs where students anticipate higher incomes once they secure employment and where there is obvious use of computers by professionals in the field. Also, as students in these programs may already be willing to pay the higher tuition rates charged to them, they are less likely to mind being required to purchase a high standard of computer—for them, it is simply another instructional cost.

There are potential pitfalls with the model. Frustration among both faculty and students may arise if the institution is not aggressive in monitoring student access. Even with specified standards for processors and memory, there can be significant differences both within and among brands of computers. These differences can result in significant support issues as both institutions and individual students struggle to gain and maintain network access. There is also less pressure for fundamental change in institutional processes or in teaching and learning.

Notebooks Provided by Program

An institution may decide to provide notebook computers from a single vendor for students in specific programs. This model is common among two year institutions like Northwest Technical Colleges (MN) where computer use may be more logical or critical for some programs, but not for others. This model is also used by large institutions where campus-wide implementation would be difficult. For example, the University of Missouri College of Education currently requires their students to use Mac PowerBooks.

Notebooks Provided to Entering Freshmen

In this model, institutions often choose a single notebook computer each year. With each entering class of freshmen, an updated computer model is selected. After a four-year period, all students possess notebook computers. Typically, the students retain use of the computer for their entire academic career. They are often permitted to take the computer following graduation. In some cases, faculty are also required to use notebooks, but more frequently they are given the option to use either desktops or laptops.

This model permits a campus to phase in a universal computer requirement over a period of four or more years. In spite of some initial appeal, it does carry some significant costs. Using this approach, the campus is pushed into a situation where it must designate a subset of multiple-section courses as "notebook" classes. This may be easier on a larger campus with multiple sections, but would be difficult on a small campus where there are only single sections of most courses. If classes are not segregated, then faculty cannot alter classes to take advantage of student use of notebook computers. For a period of years, it is likely that some students will have the notebook computers while others will not be participating in the initiative.

Additional problems arise for campuses where there is a new computer model selected every year. In this case, the campus is supporting at least four hardware/software combinations. This results in increased complexity for both support and service. Faculty who work with students would not be able to assume common hardware/software capabilities among students they teach. The problem increases during periods in which consumers see significant enhancement of products by vendors.

Campuses using this implementation model must also continue maintaining traditional computer labs for a period of years. This intensifies service and support problems as the campus maintains the "old way" while it is also preparing for the "new way." Another issue arises among some upper-level students who may resent the focus of administrative attention and publicity on new students.

Providing laptops for first-year students is probably most popular with upper-level students who may question the degree to which faculty will use computers for instruction. However, students nearing graduation may initially resist a tuition increase to fund a technology project from freshmen during their senior year. These students may recognize the benefits of the effort, but question the fairness of being required to participate at the end of their undergraduate career.

Notebooks for all Students

Some institutions decide to select one notebook computer and distribute the specific computer to all students. This model holds the promise of allowing campus leaders to open the window for significant changes in an institution. If the decision-making and planning are handled well, the commitment to distribute notebook computers across the campus can energize conversations about teaching and learning (Brown, Mar. 1997).

These institutions typically plan to use the computers for two or three years before replacing all student computers at the same time. Many campuses lease the notebook computers from a vendor. This approach alters the funding strategy for technology from the traditional irregular capital expenditure and makes it possible to budget technology expenditures as regular operating expenses. In this way, the campus ensures regular hardware and software upgrades to match changes in standards across the country.

All members of the campus community will be using the same hardware/software combination. This significantly eases support issues, allowing any student or employee to become a potential source of assistance. Campuses can also consider an immediate closure of traditional computer labs. Closing labs reduces demand on HelpDesk and computer center staff for support. For smaller institutions with limited resources, this model provides a way to achieve and maintain technology leadership, even though the initial outlay is high.


A growing number of institutions are setting universal technology requirements for their students. Costs and benefits vary to some extent across the implementation models outlined in this paper. In general, campuses believe that the benefits of these decisions exceed the costs or risks for both students and institutions, a belief that must be subjected to further critical examination in order to determine whether or not it is borne out by the results.

The jury is still out on whether or not one of these strategies is more beneficial than the others in terms of producing long-term results. Even the oldest of these "notebook university" programs has only been in existence for a decade, meaning that only six years have passed since the first class of notebook freshmen graduated. These programs are, for the most part, still in the process of being incorporated into the overall functioning of the institutions, although the learning curve seems to be fairly high in general. As curricula and administrations more fully adapt to the luxury of a technologically-equipped student body, the effects of notebook requirements will become more readily apparent. Furthermore, with a number of larger universities currently adopting (or planning to do so in the near future) the laptop computer as a requirement for matriculation, the amount of relevant data on this subject will increase dramatically in the next few years, allowing for a more thorough comparison of the various strategies.


Brown, R. C. (Mar. 1997). Universal access: Universities benefit from standardization [Online]. The Technology Colloquium. Retrieved April 8, 1998 from the World Wide Web:

Brown, R. C. (1998). ThinkPadU98 [Online]. Retrieved August 1, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Brown, R. C., Heeler, P. & Von Holzen, R. (Mar. 1998). Providing universal student access to technology: A summary of alternative models. Paper accepted for presentation at the 1998 Small Campus Computing Symposium. Fargo, ND.

Resmer, M., Mingle, J. R., & Oblinger, D. (1995). Computers for all students: A strategy for universal access to information resources. Denver: State Higher Education Executive Officers.

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