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College Gambles On Technology

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Small, poor and 45 minutes from the nearest town with a shopping mall, West Virginia Wesleyan College couldn't attract enough students to fill its classrooms and improve its struggling finances. To survive and thrive, it needed to stand out.

The answer, college leaders decided, was technology.

In the mid-1990s, this school of 1,550 students three hours south of Pittsburgh became one of the first and most aggressive members of the "ubiquitous computing" movement on college campuses. The idea was to get computers into the hands of every student virtually all the time, transforming living and learning.

While richer schools moved more cautiously, Wesleyan spent millions of dollars - some of it borrowed - wiring its campus with cutting-edge technology, training faculty to use it as a teaching tool and subsidizing a requirement that every student lease a laptop computer. It even required prospective students to apply online.

For a school with an endowment of around $30 million, building a technology oasis in Appalachia wasn't just an experiment, it was a big gamble - one Wesleyan hoped would pay off by attracting more students, especially wealthier ones who wouldn't need financial aid.

Nearly a decade later, the results offer a lesson to other small schools about the benefits, and limits, of technology.

Administrators brag about teachers using computers to enhance lectures, to prod students to explore on their own, and to extend class discussions late into the night. The school's library is well used as a result of the campaign and a number of recent graduates say their technology immersion genuinely helped them learn.

But Wesleyan's financial and enrollment problems persist -- and some faculty blame the college's ambitions. They think Wesleyan should have focused more on its greatest asset: its teachers.

Founded in 1890, Wesleyan has produced many community leaders -- teachers, lawyers and, though less frequently now, Methodist ministers. The mid-1970s brought a spell of prestige, when Jay Rockefeller, scion of the famously wealthy family and now a
Democratic senator, served as president.

The school has the classic liberal arts college look, with brick buildings clustered around a grassy main quad against a backdrop of mountains. But while isolation makes for a scenic campus, it also makes recruiting difficult. Administrators hoped technology would help Wesleyan combine the virtues of a small school with the resources of a university.

"It was an effort to find ways to help students get over some of the barriers, and a significant barrier here in north central West Virginia is geography," said Kathleen Parker, college librarian and one of the early leaders of the initiative.

The college went all-out. A cheaper option might have been to focus on public computer clusters, or require students to have desktop PCs. But Wesleyan decided laptops, though pricier, were essential for "ubiquitous computing" and that every student should have one.

Since neither the college nor many students could afford them outright, Wesleyan opted to charge a technology fee. The revenue would cover the college's general expenses, like network maintenance, plus provide each student with a leased IBM Think Pad laptop, to be upgraded every two years and returned at graduation. Wesleyan would help students pay the fee through financial aid.

But as the fee grew to $1,200 annually, the college had to chip in more and more. On balance, the program cost the college several hundred thousand dollars per year, Vice President for Financial Affairs Steve Jones said.

Wesleyan President William Haden viewed it as a worthwhile investment, setting Wesleyan apart from its peers. "This was an opportunity to add some value to what students were paying for their education, and the way to do that was not to charge them the full cost of their having access to the technology," he said.

There were concerns from the beginning, however, that a school with an annual budget of less than $25 million was taking on too much.

Former comptroller Gerald Steed says he warned of cost overruns. David Thomas, the college treasurer when the plan was approved, said he also had serious reservations.

The college's board failed to scrutinize the project, and there was little effort to raise outside money, he said. Thomas left Wesleyan in 1997, the first year laptops were handed out, partly because of objections to the program. "I felt like the college needed to get its finances in order before it would take on this kind of major kick," he said. "I thought it was an extreme risk."

Physics professor Joseph Wiest recalls describing the college's plan to a colleague at Wellesley, a Massachusetts women's college with an endowment of more than $1 billion. "You must be very rich," the colleague told Wiest. "We could never afford that at Wellesley."

In 2001, Wesleyan extended the laptop lease to three years, saving $800,000 annually. But as laptop prices fell, parents and students who could buy a laptop for $1,200 wondered aloud why they were paying that much per year for a computer they couldn't keep.

This spring, Wesleyan announced it would cut the fee to $600, while requiring students to buy their own laptops from Dell.

About the same time, Wesleyan produced its first balanced budget in recent memory, though Haden and Jones insist the technology program didn't create the college's financial problems. They blame them instead on the tuition discounts the college must offer students to keep classes full. Those discounts have averaged as much as 60 percent lately, while the national average for small colleges has been closer to 40 percent.

Besides, they say, a less ambitious program wouldn't erase the college's technology expenses. A college without a basic e-mail network would be a laughingstock.

Some faculty aren't convinced.

"There's a lot of anger," said John Warner, a sociology professor. "There are plenty of people who think our investment drained us and damaged our ability to do lots of things."

Critics also note the program failed to accomplish one of its principal goals. Applications are down compared to a decade ago; enrollment is flat, and even more students are coming from comparatively poor West Virginia. Robert Skinner, who oversees admissions and financial aid, acknowledges the technology initiative probably appealed more to poorer students than to wealthier ones, whom the school most needed to attract.

The college, meanwhile, has struggled through staff cuts and campus acrimony. Haden, who inherited the technology program in its infancy when he arrived but put the full weight of his office behind it, was recently the target of a symbolic, no-confidence vote by the faculty, who objected to his handling of a strategic review that resulted in the elimination of the nursing program.

But if Wesleyan's experiment was a failure, how to explain the library? Parker, the school librarian, says ubiquitous computing has brought it to life.

Students consult the online Oxford English Dictionary 20 times more often than they once checked the print version. Wesleyan is part of a consortium of small colleges that buys online chemistry journals, but use here exceeds that at all the other colleges in the group combined. Even traditional books get used more; students have a better sense of what's in the library.

And, because Wesleyan upgraded its computer hardware and software at once, it all flows seamlessly.

"I am the envy of other librarians," Parker said.

Wesleyan worked hard to train teachers to use technology effectively, said Karen Petitto, a specialist in technology education. By 2000, the percentage of faculty respondents to a survey who called themselves novices had fallen from 45 percent to 5 percent.

The emphasis, perhaps unexpectedly, has been less on complicated, course-specific software for classroom use than on relatively simple programs that help students access information and continue discussions after class.

"You can say it's 'just communications,"' said computer science professor Richard Clemens. "But an awful lot of what a college does is communications. We're talking about delivery and discussion of ideas." And if students also use their laptops to listen to music and watch movies, Clemens sees nothing wrong with that.

Petitto says class listservs - online forums where participants can post comments to the group -- help stretch Wesleyan's greatest resource: teaching time. "Those three hours (per week) are what Wesleyan is all about," she said. "We use the technology to supplement that time."

Still, if teaching is Wesleyan's greatest resource, even some technophiles on campus worry the college overreached.

Typing into a laptop on his front porch swing near campus, Warner, the sociology professor, shows some of the thousands of PowerPoint slides he's assembled to liven up lectures with charts and photographs from his travels.

But Warner admits PowerPoint isn't exactly revolutionary, and says many of his colleagues aren't even doing the basics. "The stuff they do is light years behind what some people are doing on the cutting edge," he said.

Warner enjoys technology. But what really draws students, he says, is teaching, and he thinks that has suffered because money went into computers instead.

Teachers grumble over pay everywhere, but here the anger is acute. Salaries here have barely budged since 2000, and the average assistant professor's pay has fallen below that at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.

On a campus with just 86 full-time faculty, Warner said, a few hundred thousand dollars more spent on teaching could make a real difference.

Haden says the college plans to raise faculty pay. But he says Wesleyan is nothing without students - "they vote with their feet" - and the college has no choice but to address their wants and needs.

He says technology has been a big part of that, and some recent graduates agree that it's valuable - though maybe not essential.

Middle school teacher Stephanie Simmons, a 2002 Wesleyan graduate, says she uses technology constantly with her students. She learned it all in college.

"I came from a high school where we had one computer lab and I probably didn't see a computer until I was in the sixth grade," Simmons said.

Her brother-in-law, Daniel Simmons, a 1999 graduate and also a middle-school teacher, praised the program, too. "If I had gone to another school it wouldn't have been available to me," he said. "It was very convenient and it was top of the line."

Their responses are in keeping with the 2003 National Survey of Student Engagement. On that, Wesleyan students responded more positively than the national liberal arts college average to questions about technology use in almost every category.

But as with the faculty, the quality of human instructors is a big concern among Wesleyan alumni. "A little bit more money should have been put into keeping people," said Evan Keeling, a 2002 graduate now pursuing a doctorate at the University of Virginia.

He found the quality in the classroom uneven, and, notably, neither he nor the Simmons siblings said they came to Wesleyan because of technology: the program was a bonus, not the primary draw. Skinner, the director of admission and financial planning, acknowledged that seems widely true. Prospective students pay more attention to more tangible signs of growth.

"It did open some doors for us, but would I have liked to have had a new residence hall or recreational facility? I probably would have preferred that," Skinner said.

His daily struggle remains filling the freshman class, which may be down 50 people or more this year, due to changes in government financial aid programs and the shuttering of the nursing program. The college still accepts about 80 percent of its applicants, and no longer requires online applications.

Haden acknowledges that, with the benefit of hindsight, he might have handled details of how the program was financed differently. But he makes no apologies for taking bold steps he says have indeed set Wesleyan apart.

"We needed to make a statement about our commitment to technology and our belief that it would enhance the quality of education and the preparation of our students," he said. "And I'm still believing that."

By Justin Pope
By Justin Pope