Policy Recommendations I

Virginia Tech Cyberschool

"Requiring Computers for All Students"

Len Hatfield and Timothy W. Luke
Coordinators, Cyberschool
February 20, 1997

During our first meeting of the Spring 1997 semester, the Cyberschool faculty addressed the pressing concern of assuring individual student access to computers, and we want to make some recommendations in support of an institution-wide policy to sustain VPI&SU's leadership in using computing/network technologies in higher education.

At this time, the entering freshman class of the College of Engineering, the College of Business and the Departments of Computer Science and Statistics are required to have computers. Likewise, the College of Agriculture requires a computer by the second year of enrollment, and the College of Architecture requires one by the third year. With the exception of Engineering, all of these programs issue specifications of hardware and software, allowing students to acquire computers on their own. Engineering has a special program with IBM run through VT Services/University Bookstore. We strongly support the recent move by all of the college Deans to "require" computers for the instruction of all students in compliance with federal student financial aid regulations that enable Financial Aid here on campus to enter a sum of $3,000 for computers in the financial aid budgets of all entering freshman and graduate students for the coming academic year. With nearly 17,000 students (more or less, 11,000 undergraduate and 5,000 graduate) using this office's services, this change is important.

Nonetheless, it is only a start, for it leaves nearly 8,000 students, or those not using any of Financial Aid's services, without recourse to this computer access option. Moreover, this interim arrangement only provides a fixed dollar amount for individual students to purchase a computer, closing out other access possibilities. Certainly, students are still free to buy a computer and bring it to school. Still, this is not enough.

Since access, and not necessarily ownership, is the desired end result, the Cyberschool faculty recommend that the University move at once to insure access for all 25,000 of its current undergraduate and graduate students by using the existing VT Services/University Bookstore supply systems to provide computers and peripherals through purchase, lease, and/or rental options. In other words, we need to require access to computers, and then provide an easy, one-stop, standardized menu of supply alternatives to meet this institution-wide requirement.

VT Services/University Bookstore do this now for 1,500 ± new Engineering majors every year. However, this arrangement with VT Services to support the PC initiative program in the College of Engineering has had its difficulties because of administrative misunderstandings, special funding arrangements attached to the program in support of College of Engineering activities, basic hardware and software cost questions, and additional understandings with IBM as the corporate source of the PC initiative's system of choice. If these arrangements can be improved, then VT Services' supply system might be scaleable for the whole institution. If not, then the University could either solicit bids from other outside vendors or establish a new closely held corporation of its own to provide this service. With an assured eventual market of 25,000 students, and probably hundreds more faculty and staff, there should be great interest in the larger marketplace in such a contract. If the numbers for this campus-based market do not prove initially attractive, then the University should leverage its position as a fixed gateway to other large computer-user markets--Extension and Outreach clienteles, NET.WORK.VIRGINIA users, and, most importantly, VPI&SU alumni who might want one-stop, university-tied access to computing/network technology--to attract vendors.

Implementing these recommendations as soon as possible demands that a definite decision be made immediately. When taken, however, this decision should produce many important outcomes in support of several vital University goals. These might include:

1) Recruiting Benefits: university-wide computer requirements coupled with easy standard access will indicate that VPI&SU has embraced decisively this advanced technology in its instruction, making it easy to use, and providing equal access to all--via purchase, lease, or rental agreements--without saying students must own a computer to attend VPI&SU.

2) Infrastructure Planning: university-wide computer requirements would permit Educational Technologies and the faculty and staff of all colleges and departments to assume every student has basic PC access. This would allow the university computing labs to shift their emphasis from basic to more advanced services and access (since studies show that universal student ownership of computers only increases campus lab use). Thus, institutionally-provided computer labs then could be organized around more discipline-focused software, more high-end specialized work stations, and more flexible use arrangements.

3) Institutional Efficiency: university-wide computer requirements should create even more efficiencies through more widely established electronic publishing (e.g., of the class time-table, etc.), greater use of net-centered teaching methods, more digital library access, and common technical support resources.

4) Curricular Planning: university-wide computer requirements would end the current confusing patchwork of departmental and college expectations, requirements, recommendations, guidelines, etc. with one more standardized menu of computer options that would allow computing-across-the-curriculum, computer literacy, or cyberschooling initiatives to be fulfilled more effectively.

5) Economic Development: university-wide computer requirements will necessitate the development of new services on and/or off campus to support these larger numbers of computer users, which could provide new jobs and economic opportunities to the area through private vendors, VT Services, and/or some new closely-held University corporation set up explicitly for this purpose.

6) Student Retention/Success: university-wide computer requirements coupled with NET.WORK.VIRGINIA access across the state would mean no students would necessarily have to drop-out, scale-down, or leave the University, because net-centered courses could keep them on track toward a degree while on a coop or internship assignment, during summer breaks, on reduced loads in outside work settings, or abroad on university-supported international study.

7) Alumni Networking/Life Long Learning: university-wide computing requirements would specify fixed packages of commonly used machines and software that VPI&SU alumni could purchase or lease for life-long learning experiences as Cyberschool enrollees, Commonwealth Campus students, Continuing Education learners, Extension and Outreach clients, or Alumnet patrons, all of which could provide very useful new services to University graduates.

8) New Fee Arrangements: university-wide computer requirements would permit Educational Technologies, CNS and the Library to plan more rationally for network expansion and improvements, technical support enhancements, and buying access to digital information, which may require some new fee (a technology, connectivity, digital information access fee) to be levied in the comprehensive fees or elsewhere to ease the budget crunch on these units. If services were enhanced by this fee, then students might see it as a value-adding increase in costs.

9) Teaching Innovations: university-wide computer requirements would signal to faculty that students must have personal access to computers, permitting teachers to move more decisively, if they are so minded, to use technologically-enhanced teaching methods in class as well as require net-based research projects outside of class.

10) Administrative Efficiency: university-wide computer requirements plus university-provided access should permit students and their families to plan their finances, be billed for all educational costs with fewer invoices, and get computer access more efficiently and rationally than they are at this time by setting out clear computer access options, permitting fair advanced billing, and giving more flexible access arrangements.

Of course, these are only some of the anticipated benefits of our recommendations. We recognize that some students will continue to buy their computers on their own at home, some students (like those that do not buy required textbooks now) will never buy, lease or purchase a computer even when it is required, and some students will still complain about the necessity of the requirement (like those that complain now about lab fees, insurance costs, book prices, etc.). Nonetheless, it is important that all students have the easy means to secure access to computing/network technologies by buying, leasing or renting a computer, and this decision needs to be taken now to get a supply system in place by Fall 1997.