William and Mary to Require Laptops

William and Mary's "My Notebook" program

A new program at William and Mary will require students students to purchase notebook (aka laptop) computers. The program, called My Notebook, will begin as an optional pilot in the fall 2005 term; it will be required the following year.

Here’s coverage from a local TV station’s website that’s basically the AP story; it includes comments from W&M’s Gene Roche, Virginia Tech’s Larry Hinckler, and Diana Oblinger, Director of EDUCAUSE’s National Learning Infrastructure Initiative. The William and Mary My Notebook FAQ has detailed information on the program.

Programs of this kind almost always require that schools standardize on a single platform if they want to get the full business benefits. One can also argue, as W&M does, that single-platform computing is necessary to realize this program’s full educational benefits. At W&M, the standard platform will be MS Windows. Students who elect to purchase a Macintosh, or any other laptop not offered by the school, will not have the convenient and fast support the school will offer. They’ll have to get their support elsewhere. They’ll also need to be sure their computers can run the applications they need to complete the assignments their instructors give them; for Mac users, this could mean purchasing software to emulate the Windows OS on their machines. In other words, instructors will assume a common platform and a common configuration and create their classes accordingly. Anyone not buying a laptop from the school will have to meet those requirements on their own–not a daunting task for the computer-savvy, but an inconvenience that will probably motivate most students to buy through the college.

I’m not myself an advocate of campus-wide single-platform computing. I understand all the reasons it makes sense, but something in me resists this step, partially because I’ve had pretty good luck as an outlier in most things and I don’t want to eliminate or even curtail that possibility for others, and mostly because I don’t think one platform fits all uses. And as long as diverse careers require diverse computing platforms, I think we need to support multiple platforms in the campus computing environment.

But there’s a larger point to W&M’s program, one that I hope doesn’t get lost in the platform wars. We’re all waiting for information technology to transform teaching and learning in higher education. At this point, mobile and wireless computing hold great promise for this kind of transformation. William and Mary already has a robust wireless network and plans to have full coverage in the very near future. The laptop requirement and its associated benefits pretty much complete the infrastructure required for this transformation. (The only thing missing is Tablet capability–a significant omission, in my view, but not a dealbreaker at this point.) Then it will be up to the professors and the administrative leaders in academic computing to create imaginative and effective uses for these resources.

That last step’s a doozy.

Good luck to our neighbors to the east. We’re taking notes.

3 thoughts on “William and Mary to Require Laptops

  1. Adoption of a single platform has many advantages – one that you did not mention is very significant – the development of instructional materials. If someone takes on the task of designing any kind of web based instruction, and has to expand it to multiple platforms, that increases the development time significantly. So my solution, GIVE the students the laptop. Make it the standard that is used, but this also allows others the flexibility to purchase a different machine if that works better for them, but then they still have the standard equipment, no excuses on compatability issues, and instructional development time can be reduced by desinging for one platform.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jerry. Actually, I did mention that advantage, but very indirectly (part of my diplomacy efforts), when I said that instructors would be able to assume a common platform and configuration as they craft their classes. I don’t discount that advantage. On the other hand, the web-enabled materials we’re creating in our Bluehost environment seem pretty platform-independent. This paradigm may actually reduce the multi-platform overhead to manageable levels, at least in terms of creating instructional materials. The back end of hardware/application support, though, is still much harder with multiple platforms.
    I do like the idea of giving the laptops to students, but we both know they’ll be paying for it one way or another. I don’t want to be accused of having students buy two computers just so they can use the one they prefer. :-)

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