Mandatory laptops considered by school

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By Ian Ferguson

Ryerson is evaluating how to make laptop computers as essential to students as textbooks and pens.

A committee struck by Ryerson’s academic council last November is studying how laptops can be made mandatory for students on a department-by-department basis.

No “one size fits all policy” exists for implementing laptops in school, said Ryerson computer science professor Dave Mason, chair of the laptop committee.

Some departments will find portable computers more useful than others, which is why the committee is developing “ground rules” that can be used by every department individually.

Some schools within Ryerson, such as business, are expected to make laptops as early as fall 2000. The committee is consulting Ryerson’s school of business as a model because of its Link program, a pilot mandatory laptop program for students taking their business management degree.

“At some time we fully expect proposals for some programs to go laptop, and if and when that happens, we want to have a fair framework,” said Ryerson’s v.p. faculty affairs Michael Dewson, who sits on the laptop committee along with other faculty, staff and student representatives.

“Laptop programs are growing all over North America,” Dewson said.

Acadia University in Nova Scotia was the first Canadian university to go completely laptop, with students renting IBM ThinkPads, boosting tuition fees by $1,200 a year per student.

Mason said Ryerson’s laptop committee members are trying to strike a balance between state-of-the-art teaching and accessibility for cash-strapped students. He said they’re looking at ways of ensuring students can afford portable computers, such as through scholarships paid by computer sales.

“Nobody on the committee is happy about increasing the cost to students,” Mason said. But RyeSAC’s president David Steele, who represents students on the committee, said he can’t see the advantage of making students buy laptop computers.

“What is the benefit to students?” Steele asked. “What is the value added?”

Steele is also concerned the school will use the laptop program to make money.

If students are set up with their own laptops, that will relieve pressure on universities to upgrade computer labs, Dewson said.

A 1997 report posted on the Internet from the Information Technology Strategic Development Committee (ITSDC), set up before the laptop committee came into being, said Ryerson needed to update its existing outdated computer systems to better keep up with industry.

The committee said better computer systems would allow professors and students to communicate about course material through e-mail, news groups and chat rooms. Assignments and course notes could be made available through web sites and course assignments could be handed in, marked and returned electronically.

Mandatory laptops are a cheap way for the university to get wired, the committee reported, because students would be purchasing the machines instead of Ryerson buying the latest equipment and making it available in labs and classrooms.

Ryerson isn’t the only local school considering going laptop. A committee at York University recently released guidelines for departments thinking about making laptops an integral component of their curriculum. Academic council’s laptop committee is expected to submit its report before reading week.

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