West Virginia Wesleyan College Laptops for Every Student
The West Virginia Wesleyan College (WVWC) in rural West Virginia is a private liberal arts college that enrolls 1,500 students and employs 85 full-time and 49 part-time faculty members, and a staff of 187 full-time and 83 part-time employees. The institutional budget is $30 million. The library has an annual budget of about $500,000, and the Centralized Computing Department’s budget is $800,000. Three professionally trained librarians and nine staff members, along with 50 student assistants, constitute the library staff.
President William Haden characterizes the campus as follows:
- an egalitarian environment
- an institution that subsidizes a large number of students
- an institution that has limited resources and cannot afford to support different technology systems and platforms, making standardization essential
Thinking about how technology might be used on the college campus began as early as 1982, with a Benedum College Enrichment grant. A faculty member from Carnegie-Mellon University was hired to survey all of the colleges in the region with regard to their technology needs and future technology plans. Enough communality was found to suggest forming a Consortium of Colleges for Computing and Undergraduate Education. Twenty schools of similar size with similar needs, most along the Interstate 79 corridor, joined the consortium.
The consortium sponsored regional faculty institutes that were subject-based. Faculty members met periodically to describe their uses of technology in classroom teaching. These discipline-based workshops and meetings continue. Another organization, the Appalachian College Association (ACA), headquartered in Berea, Kentucky, has also assisted the faculty of WVWC by holding technology conferences organized along disciplinary lines.
An important by-product of this early consortium activity was that isolated faculty began to meet with their counterparts in similar institutions. Their common bond was the realization that they must find their own affordable solutions to the problem of implementing technology. They realized the futility of going to visit the large research universities in their region to see how they handled technology, for, as one faculty member related, “They simply throw money at the problem.” And money is what none of the institutions in the consortium had.
When President Haden took office in early 1995, he came with a broad vision about technology, including the idea that each student should have a computer. He believed that a rural liberal arts college could survive only if it achieved distinction. A few months before Haden’s arrival, the college’s Faculty Computer Committee had begun to develop a technology plan for the campus. When the committee presented its report to Haden in the spring of 1995, he leaped at the opportunities it presented, but felt it should go further. “It is a good start,” he told the committee, “but it needs to be a professionally crafted plan if it is to capture funders’ attention.” He appointed a strategic planning task force of 25 individuals, ranging from students to trustees, to review the impact of technology on the entire campus. The task force was asked to look at networked resources and academic and administrative computing to see what it would take to create a mobile computing environment. The president worked with the Faculty Computer Committee to identify and hire a consultant, Charles Folkner of GFI, to work with the strategic planning task force to develop a comprehensive technology plan.
President Haden selected Kathleen Parker, director of Library Services, to head the task force. Part of the reason for his choice surely had to do with Parker’s collaborative style, but the president also had an unshakable belief that information resources-the library’s province-are fundamental to a liberal arts education. Parker is quick to point out that although technology is a tool for providing access to resources, the library remains primarily concerned about the resources themselves and their usefulness to the students. (Even though the students with laptop computers now have access to a wide array of materials online, 17,453 personal visits were made to the library during the month of September 1998.)
A member of the strategic planning task force, Richard Clemens, believed that providing equipment would be meaningless unless the faculty were trained to make good use of the technology. Clemens, who was a faculty member in the Department of Business and Economics, offered to spend his sabbatical year meeting with each faculty member to discuss how to promote the use of technology in his or her teaching. He was convinced that technology offered the most promise for doing dramatically different things and he persuaded the college to make this investment in him.
After the strategic planning task force completed its plan, which the college trustees approved, Haden dissolved the task force and formed a Council on Technology to oversee the plan’s implementation. The Council was composed of four faculty and four staff members.
Getting the Equipment
Funds from an alumnus/trustee and corporate subsidies from IBM, along with rebudgeting of the college’s own resources, paid for the equipment. The result is that since 1997, every student in the entering freshman class has received a laptop computer equipped with standard software. Although the WVWC campus had been primarily a Macintosh-based campus prior to 1995, the consultants insisted, and the information technologists agreed, that the plan’s success hinged on conformity: a standardized platform and the same software packages on every piece of equipment. Laser printers are networked in the library for student use. They are much more heavily used than anyone predicted. The college is considering a proposal that would give each student a printing allowance of 500 pages per year, with additional printing done on a fee basis.
The faculty enthusiastically embraced the plan to adopt technology as the transforming agent. The rate at which the plan proceeded reveals this enthusiasm. Many of the faculty members who were interviewed pointed out that the plan presented by the strategic planning task force was approved unanimously. In the academic environment, known for its conservatism and usual reluctance to move quickly, it is almost unheard of to reach unanimous agreement.
Providing the Training
The president recognized from the outset that the program to revitalize the campus could never succeed if the technology plan were partially implemented. Fully aware of the immensity of the undertaking, he pledged to tackle all parts of the transformation simultaneously. Faculty members received the personal assistance and group training that were necessary to give them confidence in the new way of doing things. They were able to travel inexpensively to workshops and technology conferences organized by the ACA, and were encouraged to learn as much as possible early in the plan’s implementation. Staff was added to the service points-the computer center and the library-to work with faculty to design courses and provide training and assistance. Presumably, the high front-end cost of this support will gradually lessen as faculty members become more confident and self-reliant.
For the librarians, there has been a non-stop period of learning since the technology plan went into effect. Parker spearheaded a training program to bring all of her staff up to a base level of technological literacy. Building on that base, individual library staff members have taken responsibility for detailed knowledge of specific software packages and applications. They turned instinctively to the Information Technology staff for help and support. Perhaps because of the close collaboration between the two staffs during the development of the technology plan, an atmosphere of collegiality and common respect has been solidified.
Teamwork with Computer Services
Computer Services concerns itself with connectivity-making certain that every member of the campus community has access to the network-and with training that enables full utilization of the network. The library sees its role as selector of content. The librarians are proud to say that there is nothing on its Web pages that has not been evaluated in the same way a book or journal would be. The librarians work with the faculty to develop the electronic resources to be mounted on the Web. The library’s Web pages are maintained by a computer science student, and he has found that helping the library manage its electronic resources has significantly enhanced his understanding of the library.
The Computer Services staff has doubled to meet the public service and training demands. The staff offers a series of faculty training programs during the lunch hour, mostly demonstrations of electronic resources that are available through the network. Library staff are also encouraged to attend these sessions. Two members of the Computer Services staff are specifically assigned to work with faculty. They are convinced that this is an essential part of helping faculty put the electronic resources to good use in the classrooms.
The optimistic spirit the case-study interviewers first encountered in an early morning meeting with President Haden pervades the campus. The faculty believe they can offer more to their students and gain better access to research resources for themselves through the technology. Librarians and computer center staff take enormous pride in the extent to which their knowledge and expertise are central to the campus goals. Students believe the college is changing for the better, although they have quite different expectations than the older members of the campus community-they take technology as a given. They are not dazzled by the abundance of resources, unlike those who have made do without them.
The collaboration of the library and the computer center has been highly successful. All but five faculty members have adopted the technology as part of the teaching process, and everyone on the campus is using e-mail. The faculty received their computers in January 1997, and by April electronic communication was universal. Computer Services hired students to teach faculty one-on-one in their offices. These students have continued collaborative relationships with the faculty after their official duties ended.
Library and Computer Services Response
Both library and Computer Services staff believe the technology program has greatly increased the enthusiasm on campus. They have found that few of their peer institutions have taken such a comprehensive approach. They believe the network is the central feature of the plan. As liberating as the laptops are, it is the connection to the vast world of knowledge in electronic form that gives the college a new lease on life. Both library and Computer Services staff stressed that other colleges wishing to pursue a similar approach need to concentrate on training, technical support, and integrated content.
When asked to talk further about changes the technology has brought to library services, library staff first described the advantages to students:
- Students have more flexibility in doing their work and they are more independent.
- Students have access to vastly more resources than a small stand-alone library could ever provide.
The library has been forced to make trade-offs to provide electronic resources. Binding of journals, for example, has been significantly reduced. The current policy is to select the top 20 journal titles for binding. The rest are kept unbound in closed stacks, from which materials can be retrieved by library staff only. The librarians are concerned about this lack of attention to preservation, but made the trade-off for access instead, with the full support of the faculty. The library has also canceled some lesser-used journal titles, again after consultation with and support from the faculty.
The librarians are openly appreciative of the support they receive from the president. In turn, they feel that their ability to extend library services through technology contributes to the president’s vision for what can be accomplished at WVWC. The librarians also point out that the library’s first goal remains constant, with or without technology: quality customer service. One of the librarians characterized the changes wrought by the technology in this way: “Life for the staff is entirely different-everything is new, and is always changing.” And the changes apparently are welcomed, for the optimism of the staff is remarkably evident.
But library staff members, though enthusiastic, are not naive. The librarians also recognize the pitfalls of the Technology Plan, which they characterize as follows:
- The staff is stretched too thin.
- There is not sufficient staff to accomplish all that the library wants to do.
- Continued financing for the transformation is a big risk.
- Obsolete equipment is a constant worry.
- Stability is elusive.
- Technical support staff are very hard to find and keep.
The library staff observed that the responses from students and faculty have varied. Student expectations are very high-“[Shopping on the] L. L. Bean [Web site] is their model,” the director of libraries observed. Faculty are more concerned that technology not supplant the most important attribute of the college-highly individualized attention. The library shares the faculty’s philosophy and takes strong measures to emphasize the core values: a commitment to books and learning. For example, the library has used the technology for a “Books of the Week” promotion. Each week, library staff select three or four books to highlight. They scan the book covers and mount them on the library’s Web site. They write abstracts of the books and connect the visual files to reviews of the book or to interviews with the authors, and distribute this information over the network. This activity, the librarians believe, gives the faculty confidence that the library is using technology to promote reading.
Faculty and Computer Services Response
Computer Services staff and some of the faculty observed that the technology has changed the approach to teaching. Very few faculty members lecture any longer. Group projects are far more common. Faculty members describe themselves as managers of the learning process, rather than deliverers of information. Student learning is taking place in a much more interactive environment.
The Computer Services staff working with the faculty described the liabilities of the technology in this way:
- There is not enough money.
- Faculty member have to give up time in the classroom to group projects.
- Everyone gives up some level of privacy.
- It is hard for the faculty to find time to learn so many new things.
- The faculty needs more development funds for additional training as well as time off from teaching to participate in training.
Many students interviewed were seniors who did not receive laptops from the college. But they clearly see the changes that have occurred on campus since the technology plan was implemented. The most obvious difference is that “we have Internet access in our dorm rooms,” said one. “Before this technology project, half of the students on campus did not even know about e-mail.” They also agreed that the underclassmen who have laptops have greater advantages than the juniors and seniors, who do not. Most of the students admitted with amusement that while they come into the library often in search of quiet study space, they do most of their research on the computer. How? They get to know the freshmen so they can borrow their laptops.
All of the students agreed that the technology program provided a significant recruiting “hook” for the college, and all hope their employment prospects will be enhanced by the college’s new image as a “ThinkPad University.”
The students, more than any other group interviewed, expressed concerns about the technology program. Their greatest regret was that training had been focused on the faculty. One student flatly asserted, “There has been no training for students.” Several pointed out that the effectiveness of technology in the classroom depended largely on the professor and his or her attitude toward technology. A few students complained about the exasperating moments caused by unfamiliarity with the technology or unavailability of a printer at a critical moment. One student said wistfully, as if thinking back to an older time, “I miss paper to hold and to highlight with my marker.” Other students were concerned that computer interaction, while flexible and not time-bound, is not a satisfactory substitute for human interaction in the classroom.
When asked what WVWC should do differently with its technology program, students quickly offered these answers:
- Give students more training on how to use the Internet.
- Teach students how to evaluate what is on the Internet.
- Substitute a three-hour Internet course for the library instruction course.
- Make the Computer Services help desk as friendly and helpful as the library.
- Understand that the new program does not help those who don’t get laptops (upperclassmen).
- Ask the library to teach students to search databases more effectively.
Further Faculty Response
The faculty interviewed were enthusiastic. A biology teacher was elated about possibilities for staying current in her field, now that she is connected to electronic journals, research libraries’ online catalogs, and her colleagues in other institutions. She also loves the ability to involve her students in virtual scientific research on the Web, research that would be impossible in a modest college laboratory.
An education faculty member sees the college’s initiative as a perfect way for students to learn how the technology can be used in the classrooms to which they will soon be moving in their professional lives. All of the education majors learn to use the technology for their presentations.
The education faculty’s findings about the technology program are as follows:
- Faculty do not have to assign the technology; students simply use it.
- Faculty members have to specify the requirement to use print resources.
- Students are entering college better prepared to take advantage of the technology.
- Students are becoming dependent upon the network and electronic resources.
- Students are using the technology as their main tool to retrieve information.
- Students are becoming more sophisticated users of databases.
- The greatest need is to teach students how to evaluate Web-based resources.
A faculty member from the Communications Department, as one might expect, is most interested in the technology’s ability to provide a new venue for campus communications. In zealous language, he talked about the transformation of the academy that includes extending classrooms beyond time and place and providing more opportunities for students. He described the improvements in faculty-to-faculty dialogue through e-mail and noted e-mail’s ability to erase some of the disconnection that minority students feel in this isolated, rural campus. On a purely practical note, faculty can also distribute news of job openings and graduate school opportunities very quickly through the network.
The technology program is not without some problems for the faculty. All of them agreed on these particulars:
- It takes a lot of time to create technology-based courses.
- No one yet knows what effect electronic communication will have on human interaction.
- The expense of the technology is worrisome.
- There are constant maintenance and upkeep requirements.
- Equipment failures range from annoying to debilitating.
President Haden is eager to see faculty members incorporate more technology into their teaching. He is spearheading a grant request to develop a wired classroom that will allow for a series of courses in which math, science, and computer literacy are brought together. He believes this will enable the faculty to restructure the curriculum to take advantage of the technology. President Haden also takes the view that the college must monitor the effects of this program on the campus. He has encouraged the college to adopt the Teaching Learning and Technology Roundtable (TLRT) model of Steve Gilbert, from the American Association for Higher Education, to survey the faculty for their perceptions of the influence of the technology program on teaching and learning.
The president’s vision of a first-rate liberal arts college is infectious. The computing center and library staff are highly motivated to help achieve his vision through the technology. They, perhaps more than other groups, believe the technology has enhanced their roles: they feel more central to the institution and are pleased to be offering more services. The trustees approved the technology plan because they were convinced something different, by an order of magnitude, was necessary to assure the institution’s survival. In short, the administration of the college has bet on this plan, and the stakes are high. The college is currently operating at a deficit in order to gain momentum. Each entering class of laptop students adds $300,000 to the operating budget. The college expects increased enrollment to offset the additional costs.
The dean of the college, Richard Weeks, joined the college in July 1998. A historian, he readily admits that he is not a technology enthusiast. In discussing his vision for the college, he focused on curriculum and the need to reconceptualize it thematically. He agreed with others that the college’s primary need is to distinguish itself and believes the technology plan has moved WVWC in that direction. “But,” he cautioned, “the technology is only a means to an end. Students must leave the college believing the curriculum prepared them well for graduate school or jobs.”
The challenge for the college is to sustain the program. The president and trustees have done an excellent job of securing funds to launch the program. Thus far two freshmen classes have been issued laptops. The next phase of implementation calls for continuing the effort for two more classes, yielding a fully equipped student body. Although the original plan assumed that upgrades would be required every four years, the college now expects to upgrade and refresh the equipment every two years. All full-time faculty have laptops, but the college wants to equip all of the part-time faculty as well.
West Virginia Wesleyan College’s future hinges on the success of the technology program. It has spent large sums of money on connectivity and computer equipment-money that will have to be repaid with increased enrollment in the future. And the college has knowingly assumed a large, ongoing burden for new and refurbished hardware and software. It is the president’s leadership that offers the greatest hope for success. The high level of confidence placed in him by faculty and administrative staff is key to the progress of the institution.