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By Maurice Cacho

Associate News Editor

When you’re in class, take a look around you and see what people are using to take notes.

Most of your classmates will have a notepad or a binder. Some may be sleeping and not taking any notes at all. Many, however, may be typing away on laptops. Behind their black or silver screens, they might also be instant messaging their friends, playing a game, or a mix of all three.

Having a laptop is becoming increasingly popular and affordable. Prices for portable technology are as low as ever, and according to market research firm IDC, the number of notebooks sold in Canada went up by 25 per cent last year, compared to 12 per cent for clunky desktops. For a busy student on a tight budget, a portable computer is probably one of the best tools she can have. As a result, some programs in post-secondary schools require students to use laptops in class.

Sheridan College, based in Oakville, Ont., was one of the first to do so. In 1998 the school started the Delta3 project, where a single class of 32 students were given laptops for school use. Now, more than 40 programs and 5,000 students are required to use laptops at the school. Others started to follow Sheridan’s example, Ryerson being no exception. In fall of 2002, Ryerson launched the ITM Learning Edge program, an initiative in which every student in Information Technology Management was required to lease a laptop from the university. Currently, students in ITM pay $675 a semester, or $1,350 an academic year to lease an IBM laptop.

This fee also includes all the software they’ll use and a comprehensive service warranty. If anything goes wrong, students can have their laptop fixed or replaced free of charge. Students lease the laptops on a two-year cycle, after which they’re required to turn in the machine and get a new one, or pay a “buy-out fee,” in which case they can keep the laptop, but without the expensive software it came with.

Regardless of whether students buy the laptop or not, they must once again lease a laptop in their third and fourth years of study. If a student were to not buy back the laptop at the end of their second year, but at the end of their fourth year, it would cost a total of $5,900. That’s $5,400 for the lease, and roughly $500 for the buy-back. For that price, you can get five laptops with similar performance (Compaq V2570). Although second-year ITM student Stephen Mastroianni doesn’t have any major complaints about the program, he thinks there are ways the university can make it more affordable.

His laptop has software that won’t be used in certain years of the program. “Right now Ryerson is paying for all these registrations and copies of Oracle that technically we’re not using,” he says. “There’s second-, third- and fourth-year students who aren’t using this but they’re paying for additional copies of (it). It is expensive.” However, this system seems to work fine, says ITM Director James Norrie. “We have the lowest rate for a laptop program in the country,” he says. “It’s equally important for everybody outside of ITM to understand that these types of fees paid by the students, which is an ancillary fee, is governed by government law and is audited. There’s no money being made in this particular instance.”

Ryerson President Sheldon Levy agrees. “We negotiate the very best prices that we can for the software that students need. If the students had to purchase that software that they need for their classes through normal purchasing, they would find it very, very expensive,” he said. Still, there are cheaper ways to get a laptop for school. As some post-secondary institutions move away from mandatory laptop programs, is Ryerson still a leader of tomorrow? The University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business requires undergraduate students in the Honours Business Administration program to have a laptop.

When the school was deciding whether or not to have students buy them from the university, the idea was shot down by both students and staff. “Every summer we get a number of companies (that) come here and say ‘Oh, we would kind of like to make some deals if you have the students buy laptops from us,'” says Larysa Gamula, director of the HBA program office. “We found that students, individually, could get a much better deal on prices for laptops than the (leasing) companies were willing to give us,” she says.

“We weren’t happy with any of the deals the companies made with us. We said no.”

Gamula says that before the program was implemented, students were surveyed and asked, given the prices, whether or not they wanted to go through a leasing company, or if they wanted to get a laptop on their own. Students chose to get the technology themselves.

However, Norrie argues Ryerson’s program is cheaper, especially if a student’s computer breaks down, because Ryerson is able to fix laptops for free. At Sheridan College, students must still get a laptop through the school. Currently, it costs $1,590 per academic year for the hardware and all required software. Similar to Ryerson, students can buy back the laptop after a two-year cycle, but for only $125. But what if students were able to buy the laptops themselves, from stores like Future Shop and Staples? Ryerson’s James Norrie doesn’t think this would work, because students would still have to pay for expensive software.

“The instant (students) bought the equipment, I couldn’t give them the same deal on software,” he says, adding that a copy or “image” of the software could be made available to students on a disc, but at a cost. “If you’re paying $600 or $400 for an image plus the laptop, you’re still pretty much up there, you’re still paying a fair amount of money,” Norrie says. “We’re eligible for deals on software that they won’t give to individual students or consumers. And that’s the reason why the economics of our program work.” However, this is all about to change at Sheridan. Starting next year, students may be able to buy their own equipment and receive a free copy of the software they need.

“Things have changed in the five years since Sheridan started doing it,” says Maureen Callahan, Sheridan’s vice president academic. “We saw new options that were available that hadn’t been available before.” The school is currently working on finding a way where a copy of the software students require would be provided for free but would expire when the student leaves Sheridan. “Some of the students in the computer science programs have some very very expensive software, but they can’t keep it,” says Callahan.

“The next stage is really a reflection of the fact that it’s better for the student just to deal directly. If they’re going to buy the computer rather than buying it from us – it’s better really to buy it directly from the vendor.

“It’s cleaner, it’s the better solution.” Whether or not Ryerson moves onto the next stage remains to be seen.

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