Good-bye, Desktops

October 1, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Kendall College of Art & Design has traded computer labs for portable computers and wireless technology, becoming one of a handful of U.S. colleges to morph into a “laptop institution.”

Many college students today arrive on campus armed with laptops, but with the fall 2007 semester, Kendall is requiring its record 1,180 students to have a MacBook or MacBook Pro. The college, part of Ferris State University, has dismantled nine of its 12 Dell and Apple computer labs. The desktop computers have been redistributed to a single, fourth-floor lab with 25 desktops, and also will be used as classroom computers for faculty and adjunct instructors, said Sandra Davison-Wilson, vice chancellor for administration and finance.

“Initially, I was like, ‘Oh, I have to buy a computer, and the expense,” said Matt Iacopelli, 25, of Grand Rapids, a senior in the interior design program. “I had a laptop, but it wouldn’t conform to the necessary specifications I would need for the software, so I was going to have to buy a new one.”

During Iacopelli’s recent interior design portfolio class, students huddled with their laptops in groups, some at desks that once housed desktop units and others at nearby tables.

“I realized that it would benefit everyone more so than staying with the current system where you have computers in the classroom,” said Iacopelli, who used savings from his job at a Herman Miller distributor along with financial aid to make the purchase.

“At times, with such a growing department and a growing school, there’s just not enough computers for everyone to have one when they need one. Better yet, you can work from home (on homework) and don’t have to come to school,” he said.

What appears to be a simple change required nearly two years of planning and research.

“This turns out to become an extremely complicated decision in many ways, and unless you have good planning, and good buy-in with the faculty, it cannot work,” Kendall President Oliver H. Evans said.

“The process that has been used here has been a careful one and has really gone out if its way to try to identify all the decisions that need to be made. On the surface, it seems simple. Under the surface, it's not at all.”

For example, Davison-Wilson added, there had to be agreement among the 13 program chairs on the laptop committee regarding operating systems, software and ways to build in flexibility. She said one reason the committee decided to make the MacBooks a Kendall-wide requirement was so students could use financial aid awards to pay for them.

“You think it’s going to be simple to find a way to put the laptops in students’ hands, but it creates a number of issues in terms of furniture, power, the wireless,” she said.

Installing a wireless network in the steel, brick and concrete dual-building structure at 111 N. Division Ave. that Kendall calls home has been a challenge, Davison-Wilson said. She said that should Kendall be successful in its plan to expand into the former Grand Rapids Art Museum building, wireless technology would be installed there, too.

Davison-Wilson said the process began with a visit to Apple Inc. in Chicago, where the committee was introduced to the MacBook and the Boot Camp system that allows both PC and Apple operating systems to operate on the same laptop.

“When we realized that, it became apparent that, for an number of reasons, for us to select one kind of computer would help not only with the administration of this whole initiative, but would allow us to get some pricing advantages for our students, as well,” Davison-Wilson said.

“We also did some research looking at other institutions that had accomplished this, how they had gone about it, because there's a number of variables involved: Does the school buy the computers or do the students buy the computers? Do they lease the computers from the school?”

She said Kendall decided that computer ownership was enough of a learning experience in itself that students should buy them.

Each program requires either the MacBook or MacBook Pro, which run $1,300 to $1,800 and may be purchased by students through an Apple Store at the college’s Web site.

The college retained three computer labs for its digital media program, which uses high-end animation software, Davison-Wilson added.

“We're hoping — and we've already seen evidence of this — that this will encourage students to congregate together, not just in the classroom,” she said. Kendall is considering purchasing some new classroom furniture to accommodate the change from desktop computers to wireless laptops, but will postpone that decision until next year to better understand students’ needs. For example, some of the software puts extra demand on laptop batteries, and students may need access to electricity in some classrooms.

Davison-Wilson said she doesn’t expect Kendall will save money by eliminating most fixed computer labs, particularly in the short-term with implementation costs of the laptop program.

“Overall the reactions have been positive,” Davison-Wilson said. “We expected most of the concern to come from the programs where a computer hadn't been used much before: our fine arts program, drawing, printmaking, even to some extent, sculpture and functional art.

“But the reaction from those students has been positive.” 

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