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Office of Information Technology's Role in
Supporting the Student Computer Ownership Program

20 December, 1995

Executive Summary

Part 1: Background and Rationale

The Strategic Plan of the Georgia Institute of Technology defines a set of strategies that anticipates increased utilization of Educational and Information Technologies to meet the educational, administrative, and research goals of the Institute. Several action items are identified as necessary elements in achieving the goals, one of which is to give serious consideration to a policy of mandatory student computer ownership. Thus Dr. Michael Thomas, Provost, charged this committee to identify the issues associated with such a policy and to recommend the necessary actions to implement the policy, if the Institute were to elect to pursue one.

Expected Increased Utilization of Technology in Learning Environment.

The authors of the Institute Strategic Plan were quite specific regarding their expectations for increased utilization of educational and information technologies on the campus. In fact, the plan states that Georgia Tech intends, by the Year 2010, "to develop, apply, and nurture first-rate EIT applications and capabilities across all aspects of Georgia Tech's operations including but not limited to the administrative and financial infrastructure, resident instruction, research, the library, and student services; to encourage and sustain efforts in multi-media technology, educational technology, and the technology of distance education; to encourage faculty to use the campus television cable system; and to revamp some classrooms to become learning studios in which presentations can be enhanced by visuals, video, audio, on-line graphics, simulation and direct Internet connections." This report will not repeat herein the arguments for or against increased utilization of technology in the learning environment. The committee approached this subject from the point of view that those arguments have been adequately addressed elsewhere and the remaining issues relate to the specific actions to be taken to effectively prepare Georgia Tech for the increased reliance upon educational and information technology.

Nonetheless, it is important for the reader to recognize that the issue of student computer ownership must be considered as only one element of a broader strategy, and must be considered within the context of that strategy and in relation to the initiatives associated with those elements

Many initiatives have already been established to move Georgia Tech towards its strategic objectives. For example, the institution is upgrading several classrooms to make a more effective teaching and learning environment for students and faculty. The Office of Information Technology, in association with the Library and the Department of Continuing Education, has created an Educational Technology Resource Center to provide support to faculty developing multimedia educational content, and to augment the capabilities of individual departments. The Center for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning has hired an Educational Technologist to assist in developing programs aimed at improving the faculty expertise in the use of educational technologies. In addition to these programs, many activities are underway in the various Schools and Departments to more effectively utilize the technologies in the learning environment.

Improved Access to Networked Resources

Along with programs targeted at improving the classroom facilities, Georgia Tech is in the implementation stages of an ambitious network upgrade program that will provide an infrastructure supportive of the use of advanced educational technologies. The FutureNet program delivers very high bandwidth capabilities to every classroom, faculty office, and in conjunction with the residence hall network program, allows for the full exploitation of technologies such as desktop videoconferencing, video on demand, and remote instruction and collaboration. Effective off-campus access to the network is also being improved, although those students living off campus will likely be at a disadvantage for some period of time to come, due to the differences in speed of the network technologies involved.

Networked resources will continue to improve, as well. Access to Library databases is much improved, and will continue to improve. Internet resources are already widely available to students and faculty, and Internet access is a fundamental element of some course work today. Network-accessible course registration and advisement is already a reality, and the services offered to students and faculty via electronic and networked means will continue to grow.

Faculty Expectations and Involvement

Although many are skeptical, most faculty support the increased utilization of computers in the classroom, and many are already moving to make more effective use of the available resources. In the College of Computing, efforts led by Mark Guzdial are underway to deploy collaborative software for use in the classroom. Gregory Abowd's Classroom 2000 research project is attempting to utilize new technologies to support two aspects of classroom support - lecture and note-taking. Professor Abowd uses a liveboard in his lectures through which he captures everything he writes, which is then integrated into the World Wide Web pages for the class. Students can take notes during the lecture on a laptop, and those notes are also captured on the Web site. The class is also captured as an audio file and the notes (both student and teacher) are time-stamped linked to the appropriate spot in the audio file. Students may go back at any time and review the professor's notes, his audio lecture, and their notes. Video capture will be added in the near future.

In Mechanical Engineering, Farrokh Mistree is using collaborative and other software in a special section of ME3110 - Creative Decision Making in Design. In the Computer Engineering curriculum, EE-2200, Introduction to Discrete Systems (which teaches basic processing methods for digital signals, such as audio, speech, and images) is employing many computer-based demonstrations for in-class usage. These include sound and pictures, as well as text and plots, and some Quicktime movies. These are all now being moved to the World-Wide Web, so students can access them outside of class.

In addition, the College of Engineering and the Library are making archives of old quiz and homework solutions which will be accessible via the Web. Newsgroups have been established for many courses at GT through which students are encouraged to keep up with the latest discussions related to their coursework. All are very active newsgroups. Finally, several EE courses provide remote access to their primary undergraduate workstation lab. It is not manned 24 hours per day, so when it is closed students can access the software in the lab if they can run X-windows elsewhere. Remote access by student owned machines would result in greater utilization of the lab and its specialized software.

With an improved support structure in place, most faculty will come to rely more heavily upon networked resources and technology-enhanced classroom facilities. Georgia Tech is committing resources towards improving the support structure, and faculty development workshops and other incentives are being developed to provide faculty members with the expertise and the time necessary to more effectively employ these technologies.

Student Computer Skills

Students with effective computer skills are likely to be more ready to meet the demands of the businesses that traditionally employ Georgia Tech students. Furthermore, those with these skills are likely to be more effective researchers and graduate students. Additionally, as an institution that has the utilization of technology as its primary focus, Georgia Tech has an obligation to ensure its students are adequately prepared to face a marketplace that is increasingly reliant upon these technologies.

Access to Computing Resources

Georgia Tech presently provides student access to general purpose computing facilities through public "clusters" of workstations. There are presently 13 cluster facilities operated by the Office of Information Technology, offering roughly 375 seats access to a variety of platform types and operating systems. The predominant usage of these cluster facilities today is to support student access to email, Web services, and personal productivity tools (see charts, below). These clusters are typically overcrowded, and do not effectively support the students' needs for access to computing resources.

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As the reliance upon computers for classwork increases, many of the clusters must evolve into technology enhanced classroom facilities, as it is expected that the Institute will have neither the space nor the funding to provide both. Some clusters and classrooms are likely to evolve into rooms which employ docking mechanisms or wireless networking technologies that support a mobile computing paradigm. The experience of other institutions (Wake Forest, for example) suggests this is an effective approach to providing access to networked resources, while preserving flexible classroom configuration options. Still other clusters will become more focused on high-end computing requirements of specific programs, allowing a more effective utilization of Institute funding.

Present Levels of Ownership

A survey of incoming freshmen to determine present levels of computer ownership was conducted this Fall ('95) through the Psych 1010 class, which constitutes roughly 90% of the incoming freshmen class. Overall, more than 50% of Georgia Tech freshmen own computers when they arrive on campus. Additionally, it is estimated that a large number of sophomores, juniors, and seniors own a machine or purchase one during their time at Georgia Tech, and although no accurate figures are available, estimates of 60-70% of all students can be reasonably supported. This reflects the recent dramatic increase in growth of home computing and use of the Internet in the home.

Significantly, however, only 33% of incoming minority students own computers, and it is clear that many other students and their parents don't have easy access to the funds necessary to purchase a computer. According to figures provided by the Financial Aid Office, roughly 1000 incoming freshmen qualified for financial aid this year, and of that number, it is estimated that 600 would find it financially impossible to purchase their own computer.

Equity of Access to Computing Resources

Students who own personal computers have a substantial advantage over those who do not when they take courses that require computer usage. As an example of this effect, several years ago the College of Computing documented a substantial difference in the performance of students with and without their own computers in an introductory programming course (CS1410). While this particular problem has been alleviated by improving the software available to students in on-campus computer clusters, it doesn't completely solve the general problem of equity of access to computing resources.

A requirement of computer ownership would put all students on an equal basis, since it would allow financially disadvantaged students to use financial aid sources to purchase computers. Thus, equity of access to resources by financially disadvantaged students is a positive effect of this policy.

Part 2: Implementation Issues and Recommendations

As the committee studied the issues associated with the implementation of this policy, it discovered that there are many, many more issues than the members originally envisioned. Many issues remain unresolved, and require further study, although the committee was able to reach consensus on several. This section of the report focuses on those recommendations and identifies the remaining implementation issues that must receive dedicated, effective planning to assure a successful implementation.

Applicability of the Policy to Graduate Students.

The committee members felt that the programs at the graduate level are of such diversity that they warrant an approach that allows individual programs to specify whether students should own their own computer. Typically, in the graduate programs, if computers are required in the coursework, they are used to support discipline specific applications, and are normally of a configuration, power, and cost beyond that which is envisioned for those machines identified under this policy. Thus, the committee recommends this mandatory policy be applied to undergraduate students only, and that individual graduate programs determine the extent to which the policy is to be applied to their students.

Applicability of the Policy to Current Students.

The committee does not believe that it is necessary to apply the policy to current students. These students are likely to already own machines, or are likely to have access to computers in the clusters as the new policy is phased in. However, the policy should apply to all undergraduate students by the year 2000.

Implementation Timing

Perhaps the most important initial decision to be made is when to implement such a policy. Because of the significant time and effort that will be required to negotiate arrangements with appropriate vendors and ensure an adequate support structure is in place, the committee believes it is extremely unwise to implement a policy that would apply to the entire student body at once. Thus, a phased approach is recommended, beginning with the incoming freshmen classes, and occurring over four years. The following issues should be resolved prior to notifying an initial cadre of students of the need to purchase a computer:

  • specific platform recommendations
  • application software recommendation
  • lease/purchase program agreement in place
  • purchasing vehicle or agent
  • financial aid/loan program in place (application)

Other issues to be resolved before students arrive:

  • receiving point identified (if purchased through campus bookstore)
  • software distribution mechanism identified, implemented
  • staging, configuration, distribution point identified
  • repair facility/capability identified and staffed (as necessary)
  • student seminars/training identified

While some of these issues can be resolved relatively quickly, others may take months, and the committee feels it is unlikely that all planning can be completed in time for the arrival of the freshman class of Fall '96. Thus, if the Institute elects to implement this policy, the committee's recommendation is to implement it coincident with the arrival of the Freshman Class of '97.

Platform Recommendations

Platform considerations take several forms. First, the issue of operating system environment (Macintosh vs. IBM vs. UNIX) must be considered, and then the issue of desktop vs. laptop must be addressed. Then, one must consider the environment in which the platforms are to be used, and the applications to be supported on the platforms. There are strong arguments to support a single platform architecture recommendation. Multiple platform types add complexity to the support picture, and complexity results in increased costs. As the number of hardware platform types increase, the number of operating systems, application suites, and communications software configurations increase. Support personnel must be trained in a variety of configurations, and this training costs time and money. Spare parts and repair facilities to support multiple platform types must be available, and students and faculty must be prepared to accept that other students may not employ an identical hardware/software configuration.

The committee members discussed the pros and cons of standardization extensively. In fact, some of the departments (in the College of Engineering, especially) have standardized on IBM-compatible applications, and have recommended that as the standard platform.

However, standardizing on a single platform/operating system/application suite raises much concern about the ability of faculty and students to pursue and employ innovative uses of technology. Some programs are heavily vested in applications that can exist only on a single platform, and accommodations for these programs must be made, at least in the short term. While it is true that most commercially available personal productivity software is platform independent, there is also a great deal of educational software development going on within Georgia Tech. While most of the developers (at least among those associated with EduTech) are striving ultimately to be platform independent, too, almost everything is being developed first on Macs, simply because that appears to be where the best multimedia prototyping tools are. Thus if students are to be able to use their computers to take advantage of such new systems as quickly as possible, they will need to be able to run a Mac environment. This may be an important issue both for student buy-in (their computers will give them easy access to the newest educational software) and faculty buy-in (the student-owned platform will support the easiest development path, making worries about cluster access unnecessary).

This factor provides an argument for a Power PC platform that includes a Mac operating environment (either from Apple or elsewhere). Such a platform has the additional advantage that it could be configured for using Unix, as well.

An additional factor is that usage of computers by freshmen and sophomores is like to be different from that of upperclassmen. As students progress along their academic path, they may find that the machine they purchased as a freshman is not capable of supporting many of the applications required in the higher division courses.

This committee ultimately turned to an examination of the intended use of a student owned computer to develop its recommendation. The predominant view is that, for now, a student owned platform would be used primarily as a personal productivity tool, with perhaps a few additional applications supportive of the undergraduate curriculum. As such, the committee believes that it is likely that a personal productivity application suite can be found that operates effectively on both Mac and IBM platforms. (UNIX platforms, at least today, are not viewed as personal productivity devices, and thus were eliminated from consideration.)

With personal productivity as the primary use of student owned machines, departments would be free to focus their resources on the discipline specific, higher-end computing needs of their individual department. These personal machines might also be less subject to obsolescence than more specialized devices.

The committee attempted to survey the faculty about the predominant classes of applications employed in the classroom, but the results proved to be difficult to apply to the decisions. Although there is some indication that IBM-compatible applications dominate the undergraduate curriculum, further work should be done to identify the applications that most undergraduate students will be employing in their classwork.

The issue of desktop vs. laptop configurations is less easily resolved. There was much disagreement among the members of the committee about whether a laptop that was sufficiently powerful to accommodate the applications likely to be employed in some disciplines would also be affordable to students. Significant concerns were raised by the student representatives to the committee (and again in the student Public Forum) about their safety when carrying a highly valuable, highly liquid asset with them on the Georgia Tech campus, especially after dark. Furthermore, problems are likely to be encountered by students when trying to secure their machines while using the Library, the Food Service areas, etc. Finally, some were concerned about the durability of a laptop in a typical student environment.

On the other hand, it is extremely attractive to envision an environment in which a faculty member can expect students to show up in class with a laptop that can be connected to a network outlet in the classroom, and which can be employed by the student and faculty to facilitate interpersonal communications. In addition, with the advent of effective wireless communications, connectivity to the network could be gained by students in many non- traditional settings, and any classroom can become a computer lab when the need arises. Wake Forest University, whose students will be employing laptops exclusively, reports newly discovered reasons for employing laptops: data acquisition in certain programs has been much facilitated, and astronomy students are finding great benefits in having starfield maps available on their laptops during field exercises. Students have voiced concern about using a desktop platform in their residence, but having no access to a machine on campus on which they can type a report, summarize data collected in an experiment, or access Institute databases (Banner SIS for registration, for example). Laptops offer a solution to that problem. Finally, the price differential is expected to diminish over the coming years, especially for laptops used primarily as personal productivity devices.

Georgia Tech is fortunate, in some respects, in already having developed a capability to support multiple platform types and application suites. OIT's Field Services is an authorized repair facility for both Apple and IBM platforms, as well as others. Furthermore, the academic departments and OIT have established support capabilities that can accommodate a variety of methods for connecting to the campus network. As such, the problems associated with supporting multiple platform types are well understood, and the primary obstacles to supporting a multi-platform-based policy relate primarily to scaling up the existing support capability to accommodate increased levels of student ownership.

Thus, the consensus recommendation of the committee is that Georgia Tech pursue a policy that allows students the flexibility to select a platform that best meets the needs of the specific discipline he or she is engaged in, but that ultimately the Institute should consider, during a periodic review of the program, moving towards a single platform, operating system, and personal productivity suite, and possibly, a laptop machine. All platform offerings should employ a common application suite to support personal productivity needs.

This flexible approach, pursued over the first years of the program, may well give the Institute insight into what the students and faculty prefer, which might direct future decisions. Their preference will be driven to a large extent by the availability of facilities to support the mobile computing paradigm, and the Institute should create these facilities.

Platform Obsolescence

With technologies that are changing at the rate that computing platforms are, many committee members expressed concern about rapid obsolescence of the selected platforms. The consensus of committee members is that, while a pure personal productivity device may last longer, a student computing platform on the Georgia Tech campus is likely to have a life of only two years. Thus, Georgia Tech should pursue an acquisition strategy that allows for platform upgrades or trades to occur at the two year point. This offers the added attraction of allowing students to select a more powerful and focused machine just at the time when he or she most needs access to a discipline specific platform.

Fortunately, initial conversations with major equipment vendors lead the committee to believe that most are agreeable to arrangements that can accommodate upgrades or trades at the two year point. The negative effect, however, is that this approach is more costly, both for the platform and for the support (due to increased complexity).

Software Obsolescence

Presently, new software version releases are occurring at a rate that rivals, or even surpasses, that of hardware improvements. Backward compatibility of personal productivity software applications is essential to the seamless exchange of information between students and faculty. In lieu of backward compatibility, software upgrades must be timed in such a way that all members of the campus community move to a new version of an application at the same time. The committee recommends that effective and efficient mechanisms be established with the vendors to address the problem of software obsolescence.

Financial Considerations (Purchase/Lease) and Cost

Concern by students regarding this policy is centered primarily on the financial burden it will place on many. While support for financially disadvantaged students is addressed elsewhere in this report, many others expressed concern that requiring students to own computers places an unacceptable burden on much of the student population. While this can be debated (see the discussion regarding the percentage of current student ownership), it should be an objective of any program that implements this initiative to minimize the financial burden on students.

Taking advantage of the purchasing power of the Institute to provide exceptional value is viewed as an important potential advantage to students. This advantage could be strengthened by standardizing on a common platform. Even without such standardization, machines purchased by students through an Institute-sponsored program should be generally less expensive than those generally available from retail outlets.

An effective leasing program has the advantage of potentially lowering out-of-pocket expenses while at the same time effectively addressing the problem of obsolescence. The committee recommends the Institute pursue a lease/purchase arrangement on behalf of students that offers a low-end platform and a high-end platform, as well as a laptop option, with an upgrade/trade-in potential at the two-year point of ownership. Because of the costs and administrative burden of purchasing a large number of machines that would then be provided to students, the committee recommends students purchase or lease a platform either directly from a participating vendor or through the Bookstore. Exploratory discussions with several vendors indicate these are feasible approaches.

The precise price point is dependent upon the specific platform and software configuration required. However, the consensus is that an acceptable student personal productivity platform should be provided for a purchase price of under $2000. This represents a Pentium (or equivalent) based machine with 16M memory, 1.2G hard drive, 14 inch monitor, and network connectivity hardware. Personal productivity and network software can be accommodated within this pricing. This committee recommends Microsoft Office, with Netscape Web browser, and Eudora email, as a minimum. A CD-ROM drive and sound card should also be provided. A printer should be offered as an option, but not required.

Accessibility to Network, Software Resources

It is important that students have access to software applications and networked resources they need to complete their education. While personal productivity software can be easily bundled with a machine at delivery, it may be necessary to provide access to other applications through other means. While some places, like Virginia Tech, have elected to provide software on CD's they produce themselves, a more effective approach may be to make the software available over the campus network from application servers. OIT presently offers software using this mechanism, and the additional cost to support this service would be minimal. There is no capability in place to press CD's at this time. OIT should conduct a cost comparison of these methods of delivering software, and pursue the least costly method.

The committee further recommends that OIT explore the cost and feasibility of providing networks access ports and wireless network domains that will allow students with laptops access to the network. This should be done with the actual machines to be utilized by students.

Hardware Maintenance and Repair

If it is the expectation that students will employ computers in their classwork, the Institute must provide a level of support that assures them access to repair services, training, and assistance to solve problems of accessibility to networked resources, configuration, and application support, all on a 24 hour a day, seven day a week basis. These costs must be fully identified. Existing cluster support funding could be reallocated to provide this support.

A subcommittee was established to address the issues associated with supporting student owned computers. Their report is attached, and describes a scenario for supporting hardware repairs. As described earlier, Georgia Tech is fortunate in having an established repair facility that provides authorized warranty and repair services for many brands of equipment, which is operated on a cost recovery basis for individual repairs. However, while students presently use this facility, an increase of student ownership to 100% will require expansion of these services and space to accommodate the increased load. Additionally, the Bookstore presently has an extremely limited amount of space to allocate to receiving, configuring, staging, and disseminating computers for students. Solutions to these problems are not readily apparent, although they could be mitigated significantly by the nature of the specific agreements with vendors.

Training of students in the use of their computers and access to networked resources should be enhanced, either through the existing FASET program or through programs such as those in the College of Computing and elsewhere.

The committee recommends the development of a specific support posture tied closely to the vendors' warranty and repair offerings under the purchase/lease program provided. Further study is needed to determine the cost associated with increasing the service offerings of OIT's Field Services operations, the Bookstore, and institutional, OIT and departmental training support requirements.

Continued Need for Clusters

There will be a continued need for OIT to maintain some clusters with the same kinds of computing capability as the student-owned systems. Students who commute from off- campus will need some access to computing resources during periods between classes. Even students living on-campus will likely make use of such clusters when they have free time for an hour or an hour and a half. In addition, some GT-provided computers will make it possible for students to work on critical projects while their own computers are being repaired (thus lessening the need for extremely fast turn-around time on repairs). Since the most common uses of the clusters are for electronic communication, it has been suggested that much of the need can be met by relatively inexpensive PCs acting as terminals or Web browsers.

Printing

Printing, especially in a mobile environment, is a challenge. Based on experience of other institutions, many students will purchase printers for their own convenience. Additionally, network accessible printers could be stationed at accessible locations across campus and in the residence halls, and provided to students on a pay-per- page basis. Again, discussions with vendors indicate this is a feasible approach, and the committee recommends OIT pursue this as soon as possible.

Impact on Financially Disadvantaged Students

If it is true that 30-40% of Georgia Tech students do NOT own their own computers, it may be that those who do not are predominantly financially unable to purchase one. This committee believes Georgia Tech has an obligation to minimize the impact of this policy on financially disadvantaged students. The Financial Aid Office suggests that several options are possible, such as deferred payment plans, and grants. The specific options would depend upon the nature of the contractual relationship with participating vendors (lease vs. purchase), and the level of direct involvement by the institution. They estimate that, based on the numbers of students with demonstrated financial need, an institutionally- funded program to support a deferred payment approach would require funding at a level of $100,000 per year. Additional study needs to be completed prior to implementing this policy to determine the best mechanism to support financially disadvantaged students. The committee strongly recommends this policy not be implemented until a program is established to support financially disadvantaged students.

Faculty and Student Acceptance

A critical element of this policy is its acceptance by both students and faculty. Students are unlikely to be accepting if they purchase a machine and are not required to use it for their classwork. Faculty must be assured that students have access to the networked resources intended for their courses, and they themselves must have the support of their departments and OIT in order to more effectively utilize the technology in their coursework. Indeed, faculty should have access to the same computers as the students. As mentioned previously, it is not within the charter of the committee to debate the issue of whether or not this policy should be implemented, but is only to identify the issues and obstacles. However, the committee strongly recommends that the appropriate faculty governance be engaged in the discussion of strategies for implementing this technology more fully into the curriculum, and for overseeing the evolution of this policy.

Policy Evaluation and Review

A critical evaluation of the policy should be completed once it has been completely in effect for at least two years. If necessary, corrective action on the policy needs to be made at that point.


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Last Modified: September 11, 1998 5:00pm
Approved by External Affairs 10/23/97