The digital divide: laptop equity at the University

By Samantha Wintner, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 31, 2015

College is expensive: tuition, rent and social expenses can add up to tens of thousands of dollars per year. Smaller expenses, including the cost of buying a laptop, can get lost in this grand total.

News outlets often write broadly about the effects of socioeconomic status on success in school, but more specifically, how does restricted access to technology impact a student at the University?

Students are not required to own laptops in the majority of schools and programs at the University. According to the University’s Computer Showcase website, the University maintains computing sites on both Central and North Campuses equipped with both Macs and PCs for student use. However, the site also advises students “to consider a laptop computer.”

E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, spoke to this contrast in a March interview with The Michigan Daily.

“As you can see, in the Unions and every place we can, (we) have computers and computer centers available for students,” she said. “But we know that that’s different from you having your own and being able to have the flexibility of 4:00 in the morning.”

Individual school requirements

Students in the School of Art & Design are required to obtain a specified computer package, which the school website says they can purchase for about $3,500. This is the only school with such a requirement.

Joann McDaniel, assistant dean for undergraduate programs in the School of Art & Design, said the cost of this computer package is included in the cost of first-year tuition for Art & Design students — which is sometimes covered by financial aid.

“Our students have a larger budget for financial aid,” she said. “The cost of being a freshman in the School of Art & Design is greater than the cost of being a freshman in, say, LSA. And the difference is that our students are required to buy a computer package. So it’s included as part of their budget — if a student qualifies for financial aid, then they get aid for their Art & Design tuition (including the computer package).”

She said students are given a four-year warranty for their purchase of the package, which is discounted through the Computer Showcase, so the laptop should be a one-time expense while they are attending the University.

McDaniel added that the Art & Design computer package is necessary because every discipline within the school requires a significant amount of computer-based work. She said standardizing the package puts all students on an equal playing field.

“When everybody has the same equipment, it’s a little bit like wearing a uniform,” she said. “(The package) doesn’t mean that there is perfect equity, but it’s one more step (towards equal opportunity).”

Ross School of Business students are not required to purchase a laptop but are warned that they will likely be at a disadvantage in both class and group work if they do not own a personal computer. The Business School’s website says that while students do have access to several public-use labs around campus, they should consider the fact that space in those labs will be limited.

Similarly, the School of Information does not have any specific laptop requirements. Education and Information Prof. Barry Fishman said decisions about what technology is required for classes are left up to the instructor.

Furthermore, neither the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the School of Kinesiology nor the College of Engineering require students to obtain a personal computer.

Monika Dressler, director of LSA Instructional Support Services, said in an e-mail interview that LSA does not have a laptop policy and does not require students to own their own computers.

“While some instructors do encourage students to use laptops in their classes, other faculty discourage or even ban the use of laptops or other mobile devices because they find them disruptive and distracting for students,” she said.

The digital divide and equity of access

Dressler acknowledged that lacking access to a personal computer can be difficult for students, but she echoed Harper’s sentiment that the University has done its best to make up for potential disparities in resources.

“LSA does understand there is differential access to expensive technologies and expensive resources among the student body,” she said. “This is true of textbooks, co-curricular activities, as well as computer technology; and is part of a larger issue of access that LSA is deeply concerned about.”

She said the potential of a “digital divide” is what drives University investment in facilities like the Angell Hall Computing Site — known as the Fishbowl — and other computer labs, and University Housing’s investment in the inclusion of computing sites and “community learning centers” in all residence halls. She added that LSA is committed to providing sufficient equipment to support students’ completion of their coursework.

Dressler said in LSA classes that have decided to use laptops for collaboration or in-class work, LSA ISS encourages faculty to ensure that all students are able to participate through group work so that any students without laptops can engage.

She also noted that students can check out a laptop from LSA Instructional Support Services for this type of in-class use. According to the LSA ISS website, there are three equipment loan centers on Central Campus — in Mason Hall, Dennison Hall and the Modern Language Building, from which “students enrolled in an LSA course may check out a wide variety” of equipment for short-term use. Long-term loan requests require additional paperwork.

In an e-mail interview, Kedra Ishop, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University, said students should not and do not appear to feel discouraged from taking classes in technology-heavy fields — even if they lack access to relevant technology.

“The colleges and schools work hard to direct students to resources and our application numbers to technology-rich majors don't suggest that students are not pursuing their areas of interest because of a lack of access,” she said.

Fishman said the “digital divide” is clearly and fundamentally an equity issue because students with personal laptops have a much easier time getting their work done.

“Even when you provide a full scholarship to college, there’s all these unintended costs of college — so just buying books can be a struggle,” he said. “And if you can afford to buy all the books that are on your course list and have them in your dorm room, that gives you an inherent advantage over someone who has to go read them on reserve all of the time. It’s the same thing with laptops and other kinds of technology.”

Fishman said instructors should be aware of what “implicit assumptions” their course syllabi make about their students’ access to certain resources, such as technology.

He said there are many contexts in which instructional technology is an imperative element of the learning process, but added that instructors should consider how to make the required technology available to all students.

Limited access

LSA senior Cesar Vargas, a senior computer consultant in the Fishbowl, said space there is limited, especially during peak times and around finals, because students both with and without laptops come to use its study space and other resources.

“Especially when it comes to finals, we have to open up the Angell Hall classrooms for overflow,” he said.

LSA senior Kelsey Pakkala, another computer consultant in the Fishbowl, said even students with laptops come there to use expensive software the University provides for free to students on its computers.

“There’s SAS, SPSS, MatLab — it’s around $150 to buy that software,” she said. “Students who have laptops can’t afford that, so they come here. They’re subscription-based (and have to be renewed every year), but they’re free on campus.”

Pakkala also said she frequently sees people in the Fishbowl using the desktops to watch TV shows because they have bigger screens than laptops.

Vargas said the 2013 renovations to the site were intended to make additional lounge space for students using laptops, but added that he regularly finds students sitting at the desktop computer spaces using their personal laptops instead.

“There are definitely a lot of students that come up to us and complain that they see a lot of students in front of a desktop and a laptop and the desktop is off and they’re just on the laptop,” he said. “The main problem is people not understanding that there are students that obviously do need these desktops.”

He said that not having his own personal computer to use would certainly be an obstacle, especially because it can be hard to find a computer to use at campus computing sites.

“I was a first-generation student — I could definitely see not having a laptop as a huge disadvantage,” he said.

Pakkala said she believes the University has gotten better over time at providing resources for students without personal computers.

“(The Fishbowl) is 24/7 almost every day, I know the UGLi is 24/7 all of the time — during peak hours obviously, that’s the bad times,” she said. “There’s a lot of options if you’re flexible with when you’re willing to work.”

Dressler said she does not know of any research that found drawbacks of not owning one’s own personal computer, but recognized the benefits of owning a personal computer.

“One might imagine a benefit of having one's own computer because it would allow a student to work on her or his own schedule.”

LSA junior Ricardo Rubio said he comes to the Fishbowl and other campus computing sites to complete all the work he cannot get done on his iPad, which does not have programs like Microsoft Word and SPSS. He said he finds the sites convenient, and that he is always able to finish his work.

“I don’t necessarily need a laptop,” he said. “I am able to do everything that I need to get done.”

Funding for technological expenses

Fishman noted that the way people choose to pay for college — including loans and scholarships, among other financial plans — can affect how they finance the technology they buy for school.

“You can only use some of those resources to pay for technology if the technology is required by the syllabus,” he said.

Depending on how students pay for college, Fishman said, they may find it helpful for their respective schools to require certain technology rather than suggest students obtain it.

Ishop said the Office of Financial Aid considers many factors in addition to the cost of tuition when offering aid to students.

“A student's Cost of Attendance is based on estimated student budgets that include not only tuition/fees and housing, but also books/supplies and personal/miscellaneous expenses,” she wrote. “Those students who are unable to purchase a computer may acquire additional financial aid to purchase a computer once during their educational career at the University.”

“Other required technology also can be included in financial aid,” University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an e-mail interview. “Students simply need to provide documentation that the technology is required for a class.”

Ishop and Fitzgerald also said the University is piloting a laptop loan program in Fall 2015 with LSA. The initiative will provide the opportunity for incoming first-year students with the greatest financial need to receive a laptop from LSA to use for the entirety of their academic career at the University.