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Volume 9, Number 1: September 20, 2002

A University of Wisconsin First:
UW-Stout Becomes a Laptop Campus

by Tammy Kempfert,
TTT Editor


Jane Henderson says it's overwhelming to walk across the University of Wisconsin-Stout campus these days. "There's an enthusiasm. There's an energy. Students sense that there's something really special going on, and they're excited to be here," she says.

This month, Stout makes UW history by becoming the first System campus to require its incoming freshmen to own laptop computers, which they lease through the school. Freshmen picked up their configured and accessorized laptops--either Compaqs or Macintosh iBooks, depending on their majors--as part of their summer orientation.

Henderson, who serves as Laptop Training Committee Chair, coordinates the training efforts for both faculty and freshmen. For the students, that involved completing three to four hours of training during orientation, along with a pre-assessment to help administrators determine what kinds of training to offer throughout the year. Stout has also hired a group of student mentors who will occasionally hold training sessions in the residence halls. "We've found that peer-to-peer training works really well," Henderson says. "Students often feel more comfortable learning from their peers. And the mentors develop leadership and presentation skills. Plus, they get a job."

A tuition increase finances the program. Freshmen now pay $36 per credit to lease the computers for two years, after which they will receive a new model and another two-year lease. At the end of each lease period, they can opt to buy their laptop for $600. While there were initial concerns that the extra cost would turn some students away, Henderson notes that UW-Stout's Fall 2002 applications actually increased. And, she says, "We can count on one hand the number of people who were disgruntled."

To fully realize its Laptop Initiative, UW-Stout technically updated the entire campus. It joins a growing number of institutions nationwide that have become fully wireless connective. Additionally, more than twenty classrooms have been hard-wired for ethernet cable and outfitted with overhead data projectors, computer connections, and instructor stations. To accommodate the increased internet traffic, the campus has expanded its wired network backbone fourfold--from 622 megabytes to 2.4 gigabytes.

This fall the campus also debuted its new portal, which allows students to access individualized information about their schedules, registration, email, and more. UW-Stout's help desk team, ASK5000, has prepared extensively for the transition as well. They devised a method of prioritizing technical problems, and they now employ a team of First Responders who can instantly react to the more serious crises. All of these benefits--the wireless infrastructure, the portal, the technical support, and professional development for instructors--comprise the added tuition, notes Henderson. "It's important to understand that the $36 covers more than just the box," she says.

Providing adequate training for faculty has been essential to the success of implementing the Laptop Initiative. To acclimate faculty and staff to website development, the campus has held a series of web camps. Stout's Teaching and Learning Center also addresses technology concerns in its "Lessons Learned" sessions. These began last year during the laptop pilot program, and, Henderson says, attendance has steadily increased.

Bob Sedlak, UW-Stout Provost, has noticed that "even the most reluctant instructors are using the technology … and considering ways to use the computers as tools to improve their teaching." He credits the Laptop College Associates program for much of the success of the faculty training efforts. Three College Associates, selected by their respective deans, help train faculty within their Colleges. They also serve as liaisons to the training team and to the Implementation Committee. As College Associates, they receive 50 percent release time from their courses. As with the students, "having someone they know training them has made all the difference [to faculty]," Sedlak says.

The Laptop Initiative Steering Committee and the Implementation Committee have attempted to anticipate and solve potential problems before they occur. John Hunt, Implementation Committee Chair, says that the two-year pilot program informed many of the Steering Committee's decisions and choices. Committee members also traveled to campuses with similar programs to learn from their successes and mistakes. The extensive planning allowed UW-Stout to circumvent specific dilemmas, such as how to transition laptop students into courses with non-laptop students, how to deal with long-term laptop breakdowns, and how to provide laptops for part-time students. Henderson concedes that the whole process has not been without glitches. "We've certainly skinned our knees, but we learn from that. This is true action research," she says.

Henderson, Sedlak, and Hunt all take pride in the collaborative effort required of their campus to pull off the Laptop Initiative. It is the kind of teamwork, they say, that has always been a characteristic of UW-Stout faculty and staff--and that last year helped their campus become the first higher education institution to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. As Hunt says, "It's not one person. It's not even 50 people. It's many, many more than that--from the people out there working with faculty and students every day, getting their hands dirty, to the technicians, to the Chancellor, who made a commitment to doing this."

Provost Sedlak agrees. "There is not an office or unit on campus that has not been involved, and so I think we have total campus ownership of this initiative," he says. He believes the Initiative has already begun to transform the way faculty teach and the way students learn by facilitating communication across campus.

Hunt, the self-described lightning rod for Laptop Initiative complaints and problems, says things have been relatively quiet in these first weeks of the new year. And, he says, "The Chancellor [Charles Sorenson] went around and visited some of the laptop classrooms the first week and came back with a smile on his face." That is, perhaps, as good a measure of success as any.



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