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Laptop Requirements and the Downside of Choice
June 18, 2010 - 5:16am

Us learning technologist believe in choice. We push for educational content to "just work" on whatever screen our learners may want to access the materials. Videos should work on any OS, any browser, and any device. From Firefox to the iPad, curricular content should be device and platform agnostic.

But choice in learning technology comes with a cost. In supporting a diversity of platforms, operating systems, and devices we take time and attention away from the learning activities. In my last job I taught an undergraduate marketing research course through a business school. The university had a laptop requirement, meaning that every student was required to purchase the same computer (a Dell D600 at the time). Each laptop was loaded with the same software and configuration, students had no choices in the baseline setup.

The students were required to bring the laptop to class, and the combination of a standard laptop and the requirement that the laptop come to class opened up all sorts of teaching possibilities. I would often use class time to have the students engage in instant data analysis and reporting using SPSS, Excel and PowerPoint. We were able to engage in active marketing research projects using their computers (and the pre-loaded data sets), working with confidence that the tools would not be a barrier.

In places I've taught without a standard laptop requirement (and a rule that laptops need to come to class), doing in-class "instant" research or analysis projects is much more difficult. Time that could have been spent collaborating around and working on projects is instead spent troubleshooting laptops or coming up with work-arounds for students who don't have the right equipment or software.

Giving students the freedom to purchase Macs or PCs, or come to campus with whatever computer they have, does increase choice - but it comes with a significant penalty for in-class learning productivity. I'm not sure if the tradeoff is worthwhile. I've been surprised that laptop requirements have not become universal, and I've seen some indications that the trend towards requiring a uniform student laptop has slowed. Does anyone know where to find the data on laptop requirements?

What do you think? Does your campus have a laptop requirement that specifies a particular model? How have you gone about balancing choice with consistency?



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