March 1997 // Case Studies
Universal Access:
Universities Benefit from Standardization
by Ray Brown
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Ray Brown "Universal Access:
Universities Benefit from Standardization" The Technology Source, March 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

As a representative of two North Dakota institutions that are implementing notebook computer initiatives, I'd like to offer some observations regarding the benefits of providing universal access to technology. Mayville State University and Valley City State University were joined several years ago in a unique partnership with shared president and seven other top level administrators. Planning processes resulted in a decision to distribute notebook computers to all full-time students and faculty. Students at VCSU received their notebook computers at the start of the current academic year. MaSU students follow next fall.

People on the campuses concluded early in deliberations that the prevailing technology model for higher education was no longer working. If we believed that knowledge of current technology was a basic tool for learning and success in the workforce, then every student and employee deserved access to current hardware and software.

It was not acceptable to allow some lucky majors or faculty access to current technology while others stumbled along using less powerful systems. We didn't believe that it was educationally responsible to only provide one general education computer literacy course in the freshman year. Finally, we wanted to reduce student frustration associated with labs that were tied up for instruction from early in the morning until late in the evening with classes.

With computer replacement cycles of seven to ten years on the campuses and the rate of change in the market somewhere between one and two years, something had to change. We are training future leaders for communities and public schools. There would be no way for us to exert consistent political pressure over time or write grants fast enough to secure the kind of funding necessary to meet faculty and public expectations. Continuing to rely on one-time funding for acquisition of equipment and the trickle-down of machines was resulting in a support and training nightmare. Without a different plan, we could no longer provide graduates who would be comfortable with the prevailing software tools.

Our solution was to work aggressively with students and faculty to define necessary technology capabilities and then seek a sustainable solution. That brought us quickly to seeing the benefits of leasing notebooks and committing to a single hardware and software standard on the campuses. We selected Microsoft Windows 95 and Microsoft Office Professional. Surveys of area employers and studies of help wanted advertisements showed that both the operating system and the desktop applications (i.e., Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, and PowerPoint presentation graphics program) are the standard tools in the workplace.

Students were, and remain, an important element in the transition. During initial campus discussions we were very honest about resource issues and talked with students and parents about the implications of rapid technological change. At VCSU, our entire Help Desk operation is directed by an employee who graduated last year. He supervises a staff of students with responsibility for preparing, distributing and maintaining the notebooks on which the campus depends.

We believe the effort is a success. We are collecting data and in a few years will be in a position to speak with some authority about the impact of universal technology access on student learning. At this point, we can say that the level of communication between faculty and students and among students is much more extensive. Students have 24-hour access to the software and network resources of the campus and beyond. We know that we will be able to upgrade all hardware and software every few years. We know that user support capabilities are diffused across the entire campus communities rather than resting on one or two individuals. Any faculty member or student can walk into almost any classroom assuming that they can log onto the network and display whatever document or images makes sense at the moment.

I see the academic use of the notebooks every day in walking the halls. Many of the normal constraints and frustrations facing instructors and students are memories rather than realities. It does not mean that everyone is glued to a computer. It does mean that faculty and students can use the technology where it is appropriate to enhance what they were already doing and doing well.

The use of notebook computers is not the only innovation. Even ignoring societal changes over which there is little control, we are actively changing the focus of campus conversations from teaching to learning, from teacher to student responsibility for documenting learning, from quantifiable inputs to measurable outputs, from passive to active learning, and from isolation of the campus to an active pursuit of partnerships with public schools and the communities we serve.

These changes in teaching and learning are not unique on our campuses. They are, however, greatly facilitated when everyone can use the same powerful software and communications tools for conversation, access to information, or storage/retrieval of data and video. Students are also doing different things from what was possible just a year ago. They are working in groups, preparing complicated presentations, sending e-mail to faculty, administrators, and each other. They are serving on campus committees and taking an active role in governance and decision making in ways that would not have been dreamed of in the recent past.

What does it all mean? I don't know if I can predict three months or six months down the road. The implications of the capabilities are unfolding every day when faculty and students walk into classrooms. The changes have created stress and work. There are new frustrations replacing old frustrations. Yet, there is excitement with the capabilities. Student retention rates are at record levels for the institutions, in spite of significant cost increases. The bottom line is that faculty and students control their learning in powerful new ways. Surveys indicate high levels of both use and satisfaction.

I came home from the CAUSE conference last month more strongly convinced that we are implementing a more rational model than the current situation which is prevalent across the country. In one session, Martin Ringle, CIO at Reed College, summarized computer support data collected from twenty-five campuses over the last five to seven years. He described a situation where there has been a significant increase in resources devoted to support. Yet, user satisfaction is dropping. Stress levels and turnover among support providers is rising rapidly. Very few institutions have either the necessary leadership or financial planning in place to make strategic changes in what they are doing. Few campuses have technology plans, much less hardware replacement plans. It was, and is, a pretty bleak picture.

Ringle summarized the strategies on the campuses for meeting the challenges: reallocation of funds; increasing the money devoted to staff development; outsourcing; distributing staffing across various campus departments; and, reducing services. Obviously, these are incremental strategies in a world that requires new models and processes.

In terms of expense, the cost of providing technology with our model falls directly on the students and parents. As with all purchases, there is a benefit calculation that is weighed against the cost incurred. At most institutions, students and parents pay higher fees as labs are expanded and upgraded. They also typically end up buying their own personal computers to find the access that is ultimately not provided by those same institutions.

How do you quantify universal access? What is 24-hour access worth in a university learning environment? Ultimately, these are not easy issues for traditional research to answer. My guess is that they can only be answered and will only be answered in the marketplace. When students and parents believe they are not getting value for the cost, they will tend to select other institutions or other routes to the learning that they desire.

Part of the beauty of our model is that we can change course quickly when the future arrives and we find a need to move in a different direction. We are not anchored to six or more generations of hardware and software that must all be supported. We are providing access to current technology…to all students and faculty…all day…from any place…

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