The Laptop Issue

June 1, 2002

Nearly 95 percent of entering Duke freshmen have computers and, of that figure, about one-third have laptops, according to Mike Pickett, special assistant to the provost for academic technology and Duke's associate chief information officer. And while some schools are developing "laptop curricula," Duke decided last fall against requiring undergraduate laptops, after studying the issue for nearly a year with a faculty and student steering committee.

"The number of undergraduate courses that required laptops in class was negligible at this point, and the students were concerned that it might take some time before a requirement for all students made sense," Pickett says. In addition, some computer science and engineering students were concerned their operating system and applications wouldn't mesh with those of most other Duke students, and worried they'd be forced to use the lowest-common-denominator configuration, Pickett says.

"There are probably over a hundred universities and colleges across the U.S. that have laptop requirements, and when we look at that, we say, Oh, gosh, is Duke falling behind? But then, when we look at the schools we aspire to be our peers--Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford--few of those, if any, have requirements for laptops for undergrads."

"Ultimately, you have to look within your own institution and see what fits your culture and the goal you're trying to accomplish," Pickett says. "I was talking to a small college in the Midwest--very literally in the middle of a cornfield--that had a laptop requirement, and they said, 'Well, we thought it would distinguish us from the other schools in the middle of cornfields.'

"If you are considering coming to Duke, either as a student or a faculty member, what is going to distinguish us is not whether we have a laptop requirement, but because we have world-class faculty doing leading-edge research and teaching. We can help those faculty and their students by having a technology-rich environment."

Already at Duke, Arts and Sciences and the library have begun pilots of wireless laptop carts for classrooms and loaners. Duke also provides wireless networking support in more than 150 wireless access points distributed around campus and plans to continue distributing its wireless network to cover more areas frequented by students and faculty. There also are about 300 public computers spread around campus, he says.

Duke plans to review the undergraduate laptop proposal each year. Meanwhile, the university continues to offer laptops and desktops for purchase at reduced rates through university bookstores and plans to enhance those offerings in the coming year.

Though not required of Duke undergraduates, the various professional programs have different views on the devices. The School of Medicine doesn't require laptops, but "we recommend having one," says Jeffrey Taekman, assistant dean for educational technology and an assistant professor of anesthesiology. "Technology is being added aggressively to the medical school curriculum, so this may change sometime in the future. Lack of a laptop precludes these students from participating in some of the newer labs, where real-time physiologic data is collected directly on a computer."

If students want, the School of Medicine will set up a "Duke-configured laptop," currently a Dell. The platform is tested for compatibility and is supported in-house. Students may also choose to bring their own laptops. If a student wants a Duke-configured laptop, a laptop "fee" is built into tuition. The fee covers the device, course software, insurance, a carrying case, and headphones. Beginning this fall, the fee will also cover a hand-held Palm device for all second-year students, Taekman says.

The Fuqua School of Business doesn't require laptops, and in some cases, professors forbid them in the classroom. As for traditional laptops, Fuqua's website even cautions prospective students: "While there will be times when new client technology may be evaluated or leveraged for a specific purpose, don't expect to use electronic devices (laptops, cell phones, etc.) in the Fuqua classroom. Do expect to see useful technology connecting students to the Fuqua environment and each other."

Nevin Fouts, associate dean for information technology at Fuqua, says that at many other business schools, traditional laptops have been injected into the classroom with "some very disruptive results." For example, students may be tempted to check stock quotes or send e-mail while in class. Some Fuqua professors object to the small "wall" the devices create between themselves and the students when the devices are flipped open.

"Most faculty don't want computers to interfere with classroom learning," Fouts says. "Some very big business schools have been wrestling with this issue." Some that previously required laptops are even rethinking their requirements. "Some have actually put in timers to shut down network access when classes begin," Fouts says. "At Fuqua, culture and thoughtfulness prevail. When we select technology to infuse into the environment, it's not just because it's high tech, but because it enables what we do--research, teaching and learning. It also has to come in a nonintrusive or nondisruptive way."

In 1999, the school began work on Fuqua's Next-Generation Client Computing project, which has been covered in The New York Times and the Financial Times.

Fuqua has collaborated with a number of companies, including IBM, to evaluate "next generation" computing devices, including portfolio-style systems and Web tablets. Last year, Fuqua evaluated IBM's new "TransNote" portfolio computer. It's sort of a marriage between a laptop and a legal pad. The TransNote has a leather-like cover and opens up like a portfolio. The left half houses a traditional laptop and the right side has lined paper on which students can take notes or make diagrams that can be turned into digital computer copy.

Fuqua is now discussing a new set of efforts with IBM and its new "MetaPad." The collaborations and pilots will have impacts on the types of technology recommended for use by students, Fouts says.

At Duke Law School, laptops have been required of all incoming students since fall 2000. "There are not brand-name requirements, but because the great majority of law firms use Windows-based computers, the law school specifications do require computers with a recent Windows operating system," says Kenneth Hirsh, director of computing services at the school. Students are asked to buy the computer and have it available for training during orientation. Many purchase from retail outlets, while others order from the Duke Computer Store.

Law professor Thomas Metzloff realizes there is potential for abuse. Before there were laptops, some students worked crossword puzzles in class or partook in other diversions. These days, some students might play solitaire or send an e-mail message during a lecture. It's a risk the law school's willing to take. "At some point, you have to challenge them ethically that this is a tool and that they need to use it appropriately," says Metzloff.