Laptop U

Laptop U

The Washington Post
By David Osborne

Many schools have struggled to integrate computers into day-to-day learning, with little success. The reasons are well known: not enough money, not enough training and not enough faculty members willing to rebuild their courses around computer software. These schools could learn a thing or two from the University of Minnesota at Crookston, a small college just 100 miles from the Canadian border.

Five years ago the president of the University of Minnesota wanted to close Crookston, then a two-year agricultural school affectionately known as “Moo U.” Chancellor Don Sargeant came up with a strategy to save the school by turning it into a four-year campus focused on technology and “self-directed learning.”

The key to his success? He gave every student and faculty member a laptop computer.

To do so Sargeant had to overcome the money barrier. Consultants Peter Hutchinson and Rick Heydinger argued that he should charge students a fee for the computers. If Crookston increased the value of its services, they believed, its customers would gladly pay a higher price.
(Truth in advertising: Hutchinson and Heydinger are colleagues of mine in the Public Strategies Group.)

To help make the decision, Sargeant put together a technology committee of faculty, staff and students. After much discussion, he decided to charge $750 a year for the computers. This raised Crookston’s price – tuition and fees – by 25 percent.

Some of the faculty were convinced the increase would drive students away. “People thought this was lunatic,” says Hutchinson. “Don had to go to the regents twice, to get approval to spend the money to lease the machines.”

But it worked. In three years, the number of full-time students jumped by 22 percent, from 927 to 1,133. Student satisfaction soared. And with higher enrollments, Crookston’s cost per full-time student dropped by 12 percent.

In a survey taken last year, nearly half the students who responded said Crookston’s commitment to computer technology was a factor in their decision to enroll. Almost as many said it helped them decide to stay in school to pursue a four-year degree.


Crookston has since upgraded the laptops three times, and the fee is now $900 per year. Students use IBM 701 CS notebook computers with color monitors, sound and Ethernet cards, Windows 95, Office 95 and Netscape Navigator. They get free Internet access, free access to a local area network, free printing and a free “help desk.”

The college has remodeled 15 classrooms to include power sources and network connections at every seat, digital overhead cameras, projection units that allow professors to use their laptops for presentations, and printers. All dorm rooms and common rooms have access to the local network, and faculty or students who are off campus can access it simply by dialing in.

None of this would have been possible if Crookston had not had an entrepreneur for a chancellor. Once the university regents finally approved Sargeant’s plan, he still faced a minefield of problems. When approval finally came, for example — on a Friday afternoon in September 1993 — school had already started.

Sargeant immediately faxed his order to IBM and found a trucker who could pick up the computers the next morning, at a plant in North Carolina. By Sunday evening, the trucker was six hours away. “So I called about five or six people to come and meet me about 2:30 in the morning,” Sargeant remembers, “and we started unloading these computers.

“Then we organized a group to come in at eight o’clock, including four or five people from IBM, to distribute them to the students. We had people unboxing them, writing the serial numbers down, and giving them to the students. By 5 p.m., we had 90 percent of them out, and we hadn’t even sent a notice out that they were there.”

Students use the laptops for far more than writing papers and taking notes. On last year’s survey, 90 percent said they used them for e-mail, almost 80 percent used them to do research on the Internet, 75 percent used them to communicate with their professors and work with other students on projects, and almost half used them to do graphics and presentations.

In the same survey, 75 perecnt said the laptops increased “the amount and quality of learning” at the school. And 90 percent said they helped “build the technology skills I need in my career.”


“The really interesting part of the story is what happened to the faculty when they realized this was actually going to occur — that this madman chancellor was actually going to make this happen,” says Hutchinson. “All the kids would have computers. What were they going to do?

“What they did, they spent the summer learning about computers and trying to find ways to integrate them into their classes. When the students showed up, the faculty were basically about a week ahead of them. The customers were chasing them all year, and they were running as fast as they could. That’s got to change the culture.”

At the outset, Sargeant says, 20 percent of the faculty members were excited, 20 percent were hostile, and 60 percent were on the fence. The first thing he did was set up small work groups. He didn’t use the traditional faculty committees, because they were too slow.

“We listed a thousand things that needed to be done between February and September, broke them up, asked two or three students and two or three faculty and administrators to take each group, and asked them to get these things done. I said, `You don’t have to check with me. Just get it done.'”

Professors were not accustomed to working with students on teams, but there was so much to do that many of them dived in.

Pretty soon the fence-sitters came over, and a culture of continuous learning and improvement began to emerge. In last year’s survey, more than 80 percent of the faculty who responded said the ubiquitous computers had “encouraged work on interactive learning tools.” Nearly 80 percent said they had stimulated changes in their teaching approaches and class material. And nearly 60 percent said the computers had helped the faculty become better teachers.

Professors have even changed the way they look at students. Many now clamor to hire students to help them with technology — to help put their courses on the World Wide Web, for example.

“They also look at the education process differently — more at students as being responsible for part of it, rather than as just being passive,” says Sargeant. “Where before they tended to think teaching was about them doing the best job of presenting information to the student — it was in their control — now they realize a lot of the process is actually in the student’s control. It requires more projects, more interactivity.”


Last year representatives of 75 colleges visited Crookston. Even high school students are buzzing about the change. In Minnesota high school juniors and seniors can take college courses for dual credit. “We’ve gone from maybe 10-20 high school students to over 400,” says Sargeant. And one area high school has given laptops to half its students.

Most important, he adds, Crookston graduates are now more valuable to employers, because they know much more about computer technology.

There have been plenty of bumps along the way, but Sargeant doesn’t let that stop him. “I’ve had a hundred things that have gone wrong, or I’ve been told I can’t do,” he says. “You’ve just got to keep trying to use your creativity. You have to understand `no,’ but then say, `If I approached it differently, would it still be `no’?”

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