WMU News

Haworth business frosh join laptop initiative

Sept. 22, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Freshman business students at Western Michigan University are getting an early introduction to the ubiquitous nature of computing and the mantra of the modern business executive--"e-mail and online access, anytime and anywhere."

As part of their efforts to prepare students to enter the digital business world, WMU's Haworth College of Business this fall launched its Ubiquitous ("Anytime, Anyplace") Computing Laptop Initiative, which incorporates computers into the learning experience. Organized in conjunction with WMU's Office of Information Technology, the initiative is the first laptop program to be implemented at the University.

Entering freshman learned in June of the initiative and were strongly encouraged by Haworth officials to purchase a laptop computer through a special agreement with Dell Computer Corp. About 250 of more than 800 entering freshman bought laptops configured especially for the college's programs, and officials estimate that hundreds more are using computers or laptops purchased through other sources.

Three classrooms in Schneider Hall have been configured as wireless hubs, and two others serve as wired portals. Business students also can access wired or wireless connections in the computer lab, the student café, study areas and Waldo library as well as the Bernhard Center and residence hall rooms, which have been wired for Internet access for several years.

Students are using the laptops in ubiquitous computing sections of three entry-level courses, including BUS 175 Business Enterprise, BIS 142 Informational Writing and BIS 102 Introduction to Information Processing.

"We've been thrilled with the response to this initiative from all of our stakeholders, including students, faculty and employers," says Dr. James W. Schmotter, dean of the college. "We are committed to preparing our students to excel in the business world, and employers have been supporting our feeling that computers are a crucial part of a business education.

"Will we ever require laptops for all of our students? I don't know. We are the first in this University to undertake an initiative like this, and it's very much a learning experience. But so far, all indications are that this program will grow and expand."

Faculty members have been eager to participate in the program as well, according to the dean, and Schmotter has led the way, tossing his own Business Enterprise course into the ubiquitous computing mix. Schmotter teaches about 350 students in the course, some 40% of whom own laptops.

In preparation for ubiquitous computing, Schmotter took his course paperless in 1999. Students retrieve information about assignments from a Web site, all quizzes and tests are taken online, Schmotter answers out-of-class questions via email and student teams meet in cyberspace to hash out class projects. Beginning this semester, freshman are logging on for other activities, too, such as researching projects or watching a video stream of a recent campus speaker--required viewing for the Business Enterprise class. With the exception of the textbook, every aspect of the course is digital.

"Once they get used to it, the students love the paperless approach," Schmotter says. "There's less lecturing in the class and more interaction, and, thanks to e-mail, I have the opportunity to get to know the students a little better. We are putting a greater responsibility on the students to become active, engaged learners."

Are students placed in the ubiquitous computing sections who don't have laptops at a serious disadvantage to those who do? Schmotter doesn't think so, and neither does Jo Cornell, an academic career specialist and Informational Writing instructor.

"The students in the ubiquitous computing sections who don't have laptops won't necessarily get the direct, hands-on experience in the classroom," says Cornell, "but they definitely are on the cutting edge because they are seeing what's possible."

In her ubiquitous computing section of Informational Writing, only three students of 23 don't have laptops. Cornell is taking her students online almost every day, primarily focusing on research techniques.

"Rather than just setting them free to go up to their rooms and surf the Net, I'm right there to give them tips as they're searching," says Cornell, who also troops students from her traditional courses to the computer labs several times each semester. "In doing research on the Web, you have to be careful that the information is valid, so we talk a lot about how to choose the best sources. It's nice not to have to wait for your class's turn at the computer lab in order to address these issues."

With the implementation of the initiative has come increased demand for technical support. Ralph Yingling, director of business computing services, is heading the ubiquitous computing project together with Kelly Penskar, project lead for information technology development.

"The up front planning for this project was quite extensive, and that preparation has helped us to avoid any major snags so far," Yingling says. "Between June and the start of classes in August, I was fielding questions from students and parents nearly every day. Things are starting to slow down a bit now, and everyone has settled in amazingly well."

User education is the biggest technological challenge, according to Yingling, and the college has implemented a number of programs to teach students and faculty members about their machines. Workshops on "The Care and Feeding of Your Laptop" were offered in August, and student mentors have been trained by Dell representatives to trouble-shoot for their peers. Overall, however, the participating students are quite tech-savvy.

"I just can't wait to see this project grow," Yingling asserts. "At some point, we'll have students sitting out on the hill behind the building participating in an interactive chat with classmates or surfing the Web to research a paper. You can feel the excitement."

Media contact: Jessica English, 616 387-8400, jessica.english@wmich.edu


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