It began in 1999 as a solution to the “ubiquitous computing problem”, says Ken Graetz, director of Teaching, Learning & Technology services at Winona State University (WSU) in Minnesota. “We wanted to give our students 24/7 access to the Internet, and we decided to go with a laptop requirement model.” By 2003 the program was fully in place and every student was equipped with a laptop computer.
The program, which is called “e-Warrior: Digital Life & Learning”, includes 1:1 laptop distribution, walk-in technical support on campus, workshops and training, and email and support, among other services for students and faculty.
Better than BYOD
The program has flourished and grown over the years. Teachers receive the same equipment as students, and most computer labs on campus have been eliminated. Students are given their laptops—they choose between a MacBook Pro or HP laptop—for two years, and then swap them out for a newer model. Seniors have the option of purchasing them at a discounted price upon graduation.
Most recently, the program has expanded to include a tablet in addition to the laptop. Students choose between an iPad Mini or a Samsung Tab 2. This shift to increasingly mobile technology has enabled students to work more effectively outside of the classroom, in fields like nursing or geosciences—students can take tablets “right out into the river to collect data”. Student-to-student collaboration has also increased with the tablet integration; “There’s never a student who’s left out because he or she doesn’t have the right software, or the right hardware, or can’t find training on how to use it.”
The program roll out began last fall, equipping half of the student population with tablets; after this fall’s distribution, everyone on campus will have both a tablet and a laptop.
Graetz says that this program is better than BYOD: “It’s created a very predictable, controllable computing environment.” When teachers use technology in class, they know what students are bringing with them. This standardization saves a lot of time that would otherwise be lost to troubleshooting across unfamiliar devices. “It’s so much easier for us to work with, as opposed to a BYOD environment, where you could have all kinds of models and machines and all kinds of software. It reduces the risk to faculty in adopting technology-enabled learning activities.”
In the Classroom
Since the laptop program began, teaching styles have changed dramatically. For faculty, having a predictable, consistent expectation of what students are bringing into the classroom, and knowing what software and services are available for students, simplifies many of the roadblocks that technology implementation can create. The mobility of the laptops and tablets has also provided opportunities for students to use them in the field and not just in the classroom.
Like many universities, WSU is utilizing the flipped classroom model, and they’ve adopted TideBreak’s ClassSpot PBL technology to facilitate this experience. Classrooms equipped with this system (PBL stands for Project Based Learning) have five tables, each seating six students, who log into a host and can share files and screens via a larger screen at the end of their table, and then to an interactive screen at the front of the room. This eases the transition between small groups and the full class, encourages collaboration within student groups, and facilitates class discussion of material.
“These tools allow you to share and to collaborate, and they do it all through software, as opposed to heavy, expensive hardware,” says Graetz. “There are other solutions that allow you to share screens and files, but they all involve a lot of wires and expensive equipment, and the beauty of TideBreak tools is that you don’t need that. It’s a very thin, light application that’s tablet-friendly, and the students just take to it like crazy.”
Building a Successful Program
Perhaps the most important part of successfully implementing a program like this is building relationships with the students and faculty who will be using the technology. “Faculty drive this,” Graetz said. “You can put as much technology in your environment as you want, but if faculty aren’t using it, it’s just going to gather dust”. He noted the importance of support at both a department and a course level, getting to know the style and values of individual instructors, and helping them learn how best to use the different tools available to them.
Student involvement—early and consistent—is also essential. “If the students don’t see a value, you’re going to have trouble. You have to communicate to students why it’s important, and you have to get their feedback—and develop programs and initiatives that leverage that.”
Relationships are essential for success in a program like this—even outside of the classroom. Winona State has built mutually beneficial business relationships with various vendors, including Apple and HP, who provide the laptops used in the school. “A lot of vendors are looking for guidance from [customers]…they’re very interested in learning more about what higher education needs, and we’ve found them to be very collaborative and interested in partnering with us on projects.”