May 1997 // Academia in Action
Technology Planning and the Movement Toward Software and Hardware Standards: Part II
by Ray Brown
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Ray Brown "Technology Planning and the Movement Toward Software and Hardware Standards: Part II" The Technology Source, May 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The planning process

Mayville State University and Valley City State University are successfully proceeding with implementation of universal notebook initiatives. Standardization in software and hardware enables a small support staff to provide a higher quality of service to a greater number of users.

Faculty, staff and students were heavily involved in the decision-making process on the campuses. With significant increases proposed in both institutional expenditures and student fees, there was a need for broad participation. The complexity of the deliberations was increased due to the relationship between the two public institutions, which retain separate accreditation and governance structures while sharing top level administrators in a unique partnership.

Formal planning processes were initiated in early 1995 using a model developed by the Center for Innovation in Instruction. Representatives of various constituencies participated in separate discussions on each campus. Each group recognized that reliance on one-time funding for acquisition of equipment and the trickle-down of machines was resulting in a support and training crisis. With proximity to the University of Minnesota-Crookston, the possibility for requiring use of notebook computers was considered and one campus-planning group made this recommendation.

After returning to campus in the fall, administrators decided that the nature of the notebook computer concept required additional consideration. In the relatively new partnership between MaSU and VCSU, there were obvious implications of one-campus versus a two-campus decision.

Open meetings were held on each campus to request feedback on the notebook computer concept. Various formal and informal groups discussed the options for implementation. The administration identified a deadline of September 15, 1995 for a decision to either proceed intensively with planning on one or both campuses or postpone implementation beyond the Fall 1996 target.

Student benefits

A number of benefits of student notebook ownership were identified:

  • Students have 24-hour access to powerful software applications, networked campus resources and the Internet from their dorms or apartments.
  • Hardware and software standardization across the campuses alters the model for computing support. Everyone on campus serves as a potential resource for answering questions.
  • Students, faculty, and staff benefit from enhanced communication and efficiencies that are not dependent on time and location.
  • Students are assured access to professional positions with relatively high salaries/benefits.
  • An intensive computing environment is the only way institutions provide all students with appropriate technology skills. Students with one general education computer literacy course graduate four years later with skills that are severely limited. For many students, this is their only exposure to technology.
  • Student portfolios and a number of other learning innovations are essentially impractical across an entire institution, without a common technology base.
  • Universal access to notebook computers permits development of courses for delivery over networks.
  • The reputations of the institutions and graduates are enhanced.
  • Faculty and students were frustrated. There was an uneven use of technology based on decisions made in the past and the aggressiveness of specific faculty members who have been able to secure access to labs. Computer labs were essentially at maximum capacity. Labs were used throughout the day for classes and students had difficulty finding time on computers to complete assignments. It was difficult to acquire sufficient dollars for replacements and upgrades of computers. If we wanted our graduates to possess current skills, we needed a significant increase in the number of computing labs and we need a much more rapid replacement cycle.
  • The situation was also frustrating for staff who found it difficult to maintain labs and computers in offices. There were too many different hardware and software combinations.
  • Reallocated and focusing of resource expenditures on computers and networking was not sustainable for much longer. There were unmet needs for use of equipment dollars in other areas, i.e., music, art, physical education, sciences.
  • The campuses were aggressive and successful using grant writing as a strategy for securing funds to purchase technology and support faculty/staff development. There was an understanding that competition in the future from other institutions would increase and the odds of maintaining a record of success would not be great.

Student ownership concerns

A number of concerns also surfaced.

  • Cost to students -- Students were worried about the substantial increase in fees. This was particularly true for upper level students who did not perceive that they would receive sufficient benefits to justify the cost. While financial aid covers costs, some students may not be eligible for increased financial aid awards or the mix of grants-to-loans may change.
  • Students attempting to obtain a college education without use of student loans might find it more difficult to continue their education. Foreign students who lack access to traditional sources of student financial aid face higher costs.
  • Some students find it difficult to compare the present-value of a substantially higher earning stream with the estimated technology fee for laptops.
  • Students were concerned that faculty would not alter their teaching methods.
  • The decision would require a substantial institutional commitment over several years. Human and other resources need to be secured from other sources or reallocated to support the initial investment in training and infrastructure. Longer-term benefits are difficult to specify, while short term disadvantages are easier to describe.

Benefits outweigh costs

Responses from students and faculty on both campuses tended to fall into two categories. Some people favored a laptop requirement starting in Fall 1996 and others preferred that the institutions wait until Fall 1997. A very small minority of individuals expressed complete opposition to the entire concept.

Students on both campuses were split roughly in half between the two dates for starting the requirement. Essentially seventy percent of the faculty at VCSU were in support of requirement for Fall 1996. At MaSU, the majority of faculty expressed a preference for starting in Fall 1997.

Following reports from various internal constituencies, the Executive Team met and decided to launch an aggressive campaign to create a technology intensive environment and to assess the implications and effectiveness of the efforts on student learning. It was assumed that the initiative builds on the unique strengths of each campus and further enhances those strengths through professional development and extensive cross-training activities.

The Executive Team considered the feedback provided by students and faculty on both campuses. Additional financial and technical information was gathered from the business offices and the computer centers. The decision to proceed was based on a belief that most concerns expressed could be categorized as relating to either cost or the administration's/faculty's ability to implement the concept.

With regard to cost, the Executive Team felt that people underestimated long term and short-term benefits. Students voicing concerns tend to ignore or discount messages provided by employers and alumni that technology skills are now critical for securing and retaining employment. The comments of current students were distinctly different from those received from alumni who are in the workforce.

The cost issue was interpreted as a discussion of perceived value. Comments from representatives of other campuses with computer requirements were consistent in noting student satisfaction and stable-to-increasing enrollment following implementation of their respective concepts.

Managing Implementation

On the issue of the administration's/faculty's ability to manage the implementation, the Executive Team felt that some students were not able to adequately assess the impact of new and reallocated resources. VCSU had previously hired a new employee who possessed extensive networking experience. A faculty member with a significant history of technology leadership was designated as the Chief Information Officer and was reassigned to devote attention to preparation for the technology intensive environment. Working together, MaSU and VCSU were awarded a $1.7 million federal grant that would provide an additional two FTE technology support staff for five years. These significant developments on the campuses were in addition to the longer-term commitment of faculty to use e-mail and acquire other technology skills.

Following the campus decision to proceed, approval was requested and received from the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education in November 1995. With this approval, a two-campus notebook selection committee with faculty, student and staff representation met to consider options. Previously completed technology planning documents were reviewed and additional information was gathered. A survey of companies that employed graduates was conducted to determine if there was a preference for student experiences with specific software packages. The data indicated a strong preference among employers for graduates with knowledge of the Microsoft?Ç¬Æ Office Professional software suite. A survey of faculty needs found that software features in Microsoft Office Professional exceeded anticipated instructional requirements. As a result, this became the software standard for both campuses.

Additional considerations

Other planning issues were also considered:

Classrooms -- What was needed to equip the classrooms? How many classrooms were needed and where would they be located? Was there a layout that could facilitate students working in cooperative learning groups? Who would schedule use of the classrooms?

Network-- What network operating system should be used? What equipment was needed to accommodate several classrooms and to connect all campus buildings? What type of e-mail system should be used?

Hardware standards -- Should there be an option for either an IBM-compatible notebook or a Macintosh? If not, which platform should be the standard? At the time of the decision to proceed, Macintosh computers were the preference for faculty on one campus. It was recognized that business and industry in the region were more likely to use IBM-compatible computers. It was different situation for K-12 schools where Macintosh platform was preferred. If there was a decision to focus on a single hardware option, there would need to maintain one or more laboratories of desktop computers for the other platform.

Help Desk -- Where should it be located? What would be the staffing requirements?

Training -- How would training be offered for students, staff and faculty? Who would coordinate the training?

The hardware investment

A request for proposals was drawn up for distribution to vendors. The group reviewed proposals and recommended selection of notebooks using the Intel 486 or equivalent microprocessor as the standard platform for the selection at VCSU. With industry changes, MaSU notebooks will offer Pentium chips.

Though there was interest in CD-ROM capability, it was initially decided at VCSU that network access was more economical than providing of CD-ROM drives for all students and faculty. With the one year lag for selecting MaSU notebooks, CD-ROM drives will be offered in student computers due to price decreases and rapid changes in the textbook industry. Faculty now anticipates replacement of traditional textbooks with resources available on either CD-ROM or on the Internet.

Several million dollars was invested in classroom renovation and expansion of the local area network. Conduit was placed in trenches between buildings to house the fiber optic cable for the ATM backbone. With the exception of some existing cable, all network hardware was replaced and the modem pool was expanded to include additional modems in anticipation of demand for dial-in access to networks.

Moving forward

Seventeen classrooms on the VCSU campus were renovated during the summer of 1996 to become "multimedia" classrooms. These classrooms feature student tables with electrical and network connections. Most classrooms feature 36-inch wide tables where students sit across from each other to facilitate group work. Some classrooms have 18-inch wide tables where all students face the front of the room. All of the classrooms have projection televisions that can display computer and video information. Other equipment includes overhead video projectors, VCRs and videodisk players. Classroom renovation at MaSU will begin following the end of the current semester.

We estimate that the annual costs for leasing the notebook computers, infrastructure enhancement, user support and training can be broken down to roughly $2,382 per student and $3,562 per faculty member. These figures do not include consideration of opportunity costs. Without the costs of networking and classroom renovation, these annual figures would be lower at approximately $1,561 per student and $2,741 for faculty.

Faculty and students are taking advantage of the technology. The network resources and notebook computers are changing the teaching and learning environment. A description of training and professional development opportunities will be offered in the next issue of this newsletter. Comments on student perceptions and classroom use of the notebook computers will appear in a final column.

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