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College Quarterly
Summer 1994 - Volume 1 Number 4
Mounting an Institutional Plan Regarding the Acquisition of Computers by Students.
by Clayton R. Wright and Barbara C. Turney

Technology is playing an increasingly significant role in the professional and personal lives of Canadians. Post-secondary institutions are recognizing that graduates must be knowledgeable about computers and their applications. Therefore, computers must be fully integrated into the educational system and considered essential tools in the educational environment. Students must be encouraged to obtain and use computers in their courses and programs.

In order to assist students with the purchase of computers, an institution needs to develop a comprehensive plan which ensures that the Canadian vision of equitable access to educational opportunities is maintained. Action steps that could be considered in the development of such a plan are outlined below.

Determine the Role Computers Will Play in the Education of Students

Institutions must decide how students will use microcomputers. Microcomputers and related equipment and software can be used to:

  • provide instruction, such as the introduction of new material and the review of ideas and concepts taught in class;
  • assess student skills;
  • teach computer programming;
  • provide a communication link between an instructor and a student or between students;
  • help students complete their assignments;
  • assist students who have special needs.

Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) is used in courses to review concepts, to teach new methods, and to enable students to apply knowledge acquired in the classroom. If students have their own suitably equipped microcomputers, they can use CAI programs at home, thereby reducing the load on computers purchased and maintained by an institution. Computer-managed learning (CML) can be used to assess students' prerequisite skills, to chart their progress, and to evaluate their competence at the end of a module and/or course. Students could use their home-based computers to determine whether they have the prerequisite skills to enter a program. If they lack certain skills, they might obtain a CAI program that would help them to acquire the skills that they need. Students could also use CML to assess their skills before taking a formal test that is administered and supervised by personnel from the institution.

Computers are probably best known for their communication capabilities. Electronic messages or e-mail can be sent quickly and cost-effectively to most locations throughout the world. When the recipient turns on his or her computer, the e-mail message is there, waiting to be read and responded to.

Through e-mail, faculty and staff can communicate for administrative purposes, and instructors and tutors can communicate with students or other faculty in different institutions. Computers can be used as a bulletin board to post notices, as a conferencing tool to promote discussion on a particular topic, and as a means to obtain and submit course notes and assignments.

Students often use microcomputers to complete their classroom assignments. Many of the microcomputers available in institutions are used by students for wordprocessing, the production of spreadsheets, and graphic illustrations. These functions could be handled by home-based computers or laptop computers owned by students. Computers can be used to assist students who have special needs. Braille encoders and reader functions, as well as dictation systems, can be provided by a computer. Although these items can be expensive, they do help individuals to learn and to communicate. If these items were available at home, students with disabilities could work in an environment that was designed specifically for them.

Microcomputers are used in a variety of ways to deliver and support instruction. However, the full potential of this technology will not be realized until students have greater access to computer technology and instructors integrate the technology into their courses in a significant and appropriate manner. Initially, instructors may require students to use the computer for communication (e.g., e-mail, computer conferencing, and searches of library holdings) and the completion of classroom assignments (e.g., wordprocessing). Later, students can be encouraged to use the computer as a diagnostic tool (e.g., CML) or as a learning tool (e.g., CAI). The students who will immediately benefit from the use of computer technology are distance students who are geographically separated from their instructors and require interactive learning activities that take into account scheduling difficulties and their individual learning needs.

Select the Type of Hardware and Software Students Need to Acquire

Once the role of computers in education is determined, it is necessary to select the hardware and software that will enable students to accomplish specified tasks. Minimum and optional features should be determined. Regardless of the type of medium institutions select today, there will always be a new technology just around the corner. Therefore, institutions must be prepared to update their recommended list annually, while ensuring that the equipment they recommend will function appropriately during the time a student is normally registered in an educational program. Many students may only require a 386 PC or a Macintosh equivalent. Students who perform computer programming activities and make extensive use of audio and graphic images may require a more powerful computer such as a PowerPC or Pentium computer system, which has speed and ample storage space, and can handle the detailed coloured graphics and animation frequently used in CAI courseware. A portable computer, such as a laptop, may offer students flexibility, as they can use it at home and at school. All students should be required to purchase a modem for accessing the institution's network, and consideration should be given to the purchase of CD-ROM drives. Increasingly, both instructional and entertainment-oriented software are available on compact discs.

In order to minimize the need for troubleshooting and reduce the time students must spend learning new software, it would be advantageous if the institution specified wordprocessing, spreadsheeting, graphics, and communications packages that could be used in any course in the institution. Within specific programs, specialized software might be required, but attempts should be made to ensure that the software students purchase can be used in more than one course. If institutions decide to develop their own courseware for student use, then institutions must ensure that the courseware is compatible with the software owned by students. At all times, institutions must assess how their computer/information technology decisions will affect students.

Determine How Students Will Pay for Computer Technology Items

Hardware and software purchases can be expensive, and many students have limited financial resources. Students who are unemployed, work for minimum wages, or are single parents may find it difficult to secure the funds necessary to purchase and maintain a computer. If this added financial burden becomes insurmountable, then these students will be denied the opportunity to improve themselves. Consequently, a pool of microcomputers should be made available so that those who cannot afford to purchase a computer can borrow one or rent it for a reasonable fee. In order to gain access to computer technology, distance students may need to travel to local learning centres.

The cost of computer hardware and software could be built into the tuition fee or be a separate charge payable to the institution over a period of time. However, it is probably best if students obtain their computers on their own. Then, students would be responsible for their choice and for maintenance and repairs. However, the institution should have a few computers available to loan to students whose equipment is being repaired. Otherwise, these students will not be able to complete class assignments. They may get frustrated, fall behind, and eventually drop out of courses and their program. Institutions could establish a loan fund for student computer purchases. However, if this fund is established, institutions must be prepared to cover any loans not repaid by students, especially those who leave before completing their educational programs. Perhaps the best scenario for an institution is to recommend the least expensive computer and software that students need to complete assignments, arrange for educational discounts at local retailers, arrange for and/or provide financial assistance to those in need, and assemble a pool of equipment and software that students can borrow for up to a month.

Consider How the Microcomputer and Computer-Related Equipment Will Be Distributed and Maintained

Although computer hardware and software could be sold and distributed by an institution's bookstore or computer department, it is probably best for an institution to make arrangements with local vendors and ask that they look after obtaining, configuring, and distributing computer hardware. If an institution is directly involved in purchasing, then the institution must be responsible for the pick-up, distribution, and initial set-up of the hardware and software. These time-consuming tasks must be completed at the beginning of each term, particularly the fall term. An institution would need to employ people with the appropriate expertise for a short period of time to perform these functions or temporarily re-assign individuals to perform these functions during the busiest periods of the year.

Once the computer technology is installed, it must be maintained. If institutions sell the technology, then they are usually responsible for maintaining and repairing it. How will institutions cover the cost of the personnel involved in these activities? Can they afford to allocate funds from their base operating budgets or must they charge students for repairs? Since institutions are rarely in the repair and service industry, it would be preferable if these functions were handled by local vendors. Institutions could ask them to submit tenders for the job of providing, maintaining, and repairing the students' computers. This procedure would ensure that students get the best value for their money and keep the institutions out of non-educational pursuits. However, it would still be necessary for institutions to monitor the implementation of vendor agreements in order to ensure that students were being treated fairly. Institutions may need to supply and service computer hardware for distance students. However, a mail-order service involving local vendors could be implemented to serve students who are geographically separated from their educational institutions.

Address the Problems Regarding Computer Use that Students May Face at Home

If students are required to work at home with their computers, then institutions must help them address a number of potential problems. For example, students must find a place at home to use their computer. If their home lacks space and they cannot afford to purchase computer furniture, then it is likely that they will use the dining room or kitchen table as a workstation. They will occupy space used by others. They may also monopolize the telephone when they are communicating with computers at the institution. Unless family members understand and support the student who is taking a course, friction may develop. While working at home, students may be distracted by children, television, and various family and social obligations. Students must learn how to deal with these distractions as well as with isolation.

While working at home, students may not enjoy and benefit from face-to-face interactions with other students. This is an important aspect of the educational experience. Conversely, some students will treasure the isolation from their peers and flourish because they are able to be close to their families and can communicate anonymously with others over electronic networks. Institutions must be willing and able to provide technical, academic, and counselling support to students who work at home with their computers. Institutions must realize that students face extra burdens when they are expected to provide their own computers.

Identify and Address Institutional Support Issues

If institutions require students to obtain their own computers and to work at home, then institutions must ensure that students can maximize the use of their purchases. Computer technology must be fully integrated into the instructional process. Instructors must use computers themselves. They must design learning activities that require the use of computer technology, otherwise students will feel that their expenditures on hardware and software were unwarranted and wasted. It is paramount that instructors and tutors have access to and use computer systems on a regular basis. Instructors need to learn about the applications of computer technology and how to use it to deliver and enhance the curriculum. Many institutions offer a variety of computer-related courses that help faculty and staff to learn about computer technology. They may also offer interest-free loan plans to enable employees to purchase hardware and software.

If institutions require students to have their own computers, they must make sure students know how to use them. Not everyone will require computer training; many acquire computing skills during high school or on-the-job. Therefore, post-secondary institutions should assess the computer skills of incoming students, identify their weaknesses, and provide initial or remedial training if necessary.

Appropriate training may be offered through face-to-face instruction and/or independent study using audiocassettes, videocassettes, print material, and computer-based courseware. This training must be made available before students begin their classes or during the early part of their programs. In order to learn how to use computers, some students must first overcome their “computer phobias”. Will they overcome this fear better when they are working alone at home with no one to watch them make mistakes, or in a group where they can receive support and feedback? Distance students may need to attend special weekend computer courses offered at a local learning centre or at their institution. Regardless of how the computer training is delivered, students must be provided with a practical printed or electronic manual that they can refer to at home after completing the formal training. Although audiocassettes and videocassettes are ideal for providing initial training, they are difficult to use when students need to look up specific information. Manuals provided by computer manufacturers may be too technical and cumbersome for students who have a limited computer background.

Once students take their computers home, they will need troubleshooting assistance. Who will help them set up and configure their equipment and software? Who will help them when something goes wrong? If local vendors supply the equipment and software, then they will be responsible for troubleshooting. However, how will students decide whether a problem is related to their purchase or to their assignment? Does the problem lie with the communication link between the student's home and the institution's computer, or with the operation of the institution's computer? If students are operating from a distance, then the institution must take into account the students' feelings of isolation when problems occur, telephone line charges, noisy telephone lines, and modem difficulties.

The institution should consider setting up a help desk to assist students. The desk should operate beyond regular hours, as students work at home late in the evening, early in the morning, and on weekends. If students experience difficulties with their computers and software, they cannot proceed with their studies until the problems are resolved. If there is a substantial delay in resolving their problems, students will become frustrated and disheartened about pursuing their educational dreams. The institution must provide the needed support. Selecting individuals to work at the help desk could be a challenging task. Help desk personnel must be knowledgeable about computers, yet able to demonstrate empathy for novice computer users who need assistance. They must be patient and effective communicators. Personnel must keep abreast of the latest technological developments and be aware of the features of different versions of a variety of software. When performing troubleshooting over the telephone, help desk personnel must rely exclusively on the descriptions provided by students, as they cannot see what is actually occurring on the students' computers.

If students are required to own computers, the institution must be prepared for an increased demand on all computer-related services. Students will require greater access to e-mail services such as Internet and Pegasus¨, network services, massive data storage devices and databases, learning resource services, and sophisticated equipment and software. The institution must be prepared to meet these demands.

Conclusion

Institutions that acknowledge that students must have computer skills in order to cope with the technological age must be prepared to integrate technology into the instructional process and to provide leadership and support to instructors and students. This requires institutions to change the manner in which they conduct their business. Instructors must not only have access to computer technology, but they must use it in their classroom on a regular basis. By using the technology, instructors will act as role models for students who need current, marketable skills. When exposed to such situations, students will be more willing to purchase their own computers. However, careful planning will be needed to ensure that the needs of students, especially equitable access to educational opportunities, are addressed.


Clayton R. Wright is Coordinator of Program and Instructional Development and Barbara C. Turney is a Computer-Based Instructional Designer at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton, Alberta.