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Oh the irony


The art student becomes the computer geek

SAIC, and other colleges nationwide, restructure teaching to accomodate computers.

By Michelle “Eden” Rose




How many art students do you know are nerds? One kind of student you may consider a “nerd” is the type who is so computer-savvy that he or she brings a laptop to every class. I’ve encountered a few of these techies during my time here at SAIC, but I certainly don’t need more than one hand to count them.

Get ready, though. The laptop-toting student’s will soon lose their minority status. Several head honchos in various departments at the school are currently planning a program that will require all incoming freshmen and transfer students in the fall 2004 semester to purchase Apple Powerbooks and use them in the classroom alongside updated First Year Program courses. Part-timers are included too, basically anyone who is required to enroll in a FYP class, this fall or later, will be involved in the new computing plan.

Tentatively titled the “One-to-One Laptop Initiative,” the program seeks to enrich students’ educational experience by increasing communication and interaction between all members of the SAIC community. Proponents of the plan believe that it will also help prepare students for life after college and teach them the responsibilities of owning and maintaining a computer. They would like to give all students the ability to use a computer whenever necessary, and they feel that laptops are especially essential during class, where the curriculum will be adjusted for the incorporation of computing.

As the incoming class continues through their college career, armed with their laptops, courses will be restructured to integrate their use. Emphasis will be placed on the utilization of the Internet, group activities, easier access to our online library, and completing coursework virtually. The computers will contain a standardized operating system with several common programs, selected specifically to suit the needs of students and similar to the configuration found in the General Access labs. Other benefits will most likely include a four-year Apple support program, fueled by Internet support documentation and a potential partnership with the Apple store at 679 North Michigan Avenue to provide in-person assistance.

Alan Labb, Executive Director of Technology Planning and leader of the project, says that many other schools are buying into one-to-one laptop programs. Although desktop computers still rule the school, one-to-one computing has become a veritable trend, as all sorts of educational systems across the nation are gearing up to provide their students with a virtual notebook. Statistics gathered by Market Data Retrieval of Connecticut stated that during the 2001-2002 school year alone, the use of laptops in the classroom rose 43 percent, as the installation of wireless networks increased by 50 percent.

Northwest Missouri University, the first U.S. college to install desktop computers in their residence halls, will now equip each campus-dwelling student with an Internet-capable laptop this fall. In 1993, the University of Minnesota at Crookston was the vanguard among higher education institutions to offer insured laptops to their students. Most similar to SAIC, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has also implemented a laptop program. Some states are even powering up programs to provide laptops free of charge to students at public K-12 schools.

With one of Apple’s heftiest one-to-one laptop contracts, the schools in Henrico County, Virginia, have reported a considerable rise in test scores since implementation, and a much lower high school dropout rate. Of course, the benefits don’t go without a downside—many parents have criticized the program, claiming that computers teach children to cogitate one-dimensionally instead of using more dynamic critical thinking skills.

Compared to the program at RISD, which gives students one of about eight differently-programmed laptops based on their major, SAIC’s interdisciplinary objective makes it necessary to offer only one type of machine. Uniform laptops will hopefully bridge gaps between areas of study and allow students to use their laptop for every class. Labb feels that this unique approach will also help lower students’ expenses.

That brings us to our next issue—the cost. I asked Alan Labb how the school plans to make these pricey products easy on the wallets of students and their parents. Although retail prices have gone down significantly in recent years, narrowing the price gap between laptops and desktops, the laptops will still cost about $2,000, the department’s planned cap. In addition to the hardware, there will likely be a $150-per-semester fee to get all the required programs and upgrades for as long as the student is enrolled. The anticipated software is valued at over $3,000, more with updates. Labb says that the cost of each machine will be even less than it would be with current educational discounts, because the school will purchase them in bulk. According to him, their value will be especially great considering a standardized software template will come fully equipped with the laptops giving access to a new wireless network. This may also include an extended warranty, damage insurance, and theft protection.

SAIC’s computing staff has been working with the Financial Aid department to come up with payment plans in order to ensure that students will not be troubled by this new financial difficulty. However, just how this will be resolved hasn’t been finalized. They may decide to include the cost of the laptops in each student’s tuition or offer semester-based rolling payment plans for the cost of the hardware. They are also in talks with Apple to work out a way for students to exchange an outdated model for a new one after two years, since laptops typically become obsolete within four years. The Apple Store on North Michigan Avenue is being courted to take on the responsibility of furnishing the initial computer sales, student and teacher orientation and training, and, as mentioned above, an ongoing support plan with extended store hours. The school also plans to purchase extra machines to loan students in the event of theft, loss or when repairs are needed.

The newly restructured FYP courses would require that teachers learn to fully utilize the system, particularly in a way that encourages students to learn on their own. Some schools have already determined that the program will fail if teachers are not properly prepared for the change. However, Labb explains that this standardized system will likely enable teachers to focus more on educational devices rather than concern themselves with fighting problems created by working on multiple computer platforms.

Several K-12 schools have also reported that while the laptops do make going to class more enjoyable for students, it doesn’t necessarily make them more willing to learn. Some students often forget to bring their electronic notebooks to school, hindering class activities and tech-based projects. There is also an “X-factor,” how much time might be wasted when students or teachers experience problems or malfunctions with the equipment. One school district reported that the ability of instructors to monitor each student’s progress was greatly augmented, but too many unforeseen problems limited teaching time.

Labb, however, does not propose that the laptops will necessarily increase interest in education. Instead, he points out that parents of incoming SAIC students often purchase computers that are inappropriate for our school. Advocates of the plan want to make sure that every student’s computer has capabilities suited to the school, including animation, design, and basic image editing. Labb stresses the use of laptops to encourage communication among students and faculty, and feels that sooner or later students will need to utilize laptops to supplement learning. He anticipates that there will be several problems brought on by the change—including the department’s ability to “properly manage expectations and resources.” He admits that the school will not save money by putting the program into effect because support plans for the students will cost more than the current plan for the desktops installed in the school buildings and residence halls. The school hopes to hire a Laptop Program Coordinator in the coming months to help manage the initiative.

I wondered what would happen when students already have their own laptops. Would they be required to purchase the same model that the school recommends and distributes? Labb says no, the Laptop Initiative team will be conducting tests later this spring to determine which hardware models and configurations will be acceptable. A student with a Macintosh laptop that passes will be able to “opt-out” of the program but must still obtain the required software from the School’s server. Windows-based laptop owners will also have the option to pass on the Mac Powerbook, but they will not have the ability to use the software template, and all incoming students, regardless of their qualification for a hardware waiver, will automatically be charged fees for the software.

I asked several students what they think of the Initiative, and how they would feel if they were the ones being targeted for this SAIC technological revolution. Although most of the students who shared their opinions didn’t like the idea of being required to buy a laptop for use in school, other students were thrilled. One student, a sophomore studying Visual Communications, explained that she has spent an enormous amount of time and money accumulating all of the computing equipment that she needs to complete her schoolwork at home. She loves the idea of a standardized software template and says that if the plan were in action two years ago it would have made her life a lot easier, especially since she regrets purchasing a desktop computer.

One junior in the painting department was very opposed the laptop program. He complained about the cost and feels that neither he nor any other college student needs to be trained to own a computer. He doesn’t own one himself but does use them from time to time, so he understands their advantages yet doesn’t think that a student must own one in order to communicate or to succeed in school. Several other students I spoke with also adamantly opposed the program, explaining that they are computer illiterate. They feel that their style of life and art will never require a computer, and they said it would be particularly outraged to see their college money “wasted” on something they would otherwise seldom use. I expect that there will be a lot of controversy, especially regarding cost and even with issues not raised in this article, if the plan isn’t properly managed by SAIC.

At print time, nothing is set in stone quite yet. The committee in charge of planning the program is still negotiating with Apple to come up with a definitive configuration. They are also communicating with representatives from the Financial Aid Dept. to create options for students to pay for the Powerbooks. They intend to reveal final details about costs and conditions on the school’s website sometime in early April. In addition to the informative webpage, all students (current and incoming) will receive a letter explaining the program. You can visit http://www.artic.edu/saic/laptop/ for details as soon as the laptop program is finalized.

Look for my follow-up article in the May edition of F News. I’ll be speaking with several First Year Program instructors about the curriculum changes relating to the Laptop Initiative and their opinions as to the effectiveness of computer education. What will become of our art?


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