Naval Academy Tests Laptop Learning

WASHINGTON (08/21/2000) - The U.S. Naval Academy set sail last week on an experimental program to determine if laptop computers can provide students with the same support in their coursework as traditional desktops.

The academy issued laptops to 80 incoming freshmen and plans to track the students' progress to see if the laptops are as good a tool - or better - for learning. The academy will follow how the laptops help the students as they take the academy's introductory courses in English, history, chemistry, mathematics, political science and naval leadership. For the past 15 years, the academy has required all incoming freshmen, called plebes, to purchase a desktop computer. Midshipmen purchase the computers with their own money through an initial deposit and a 21-month payment plan. More than 1,000 midshipmen received their new desktops last week. However, desktops have not been the most helpful to academy students, who need portability to take a computer to various locations on the Annapolis, Md., campus. Nor have desktops provided the scalability that students need during their four years on campus, said Doug Afdahl, executive director of information technology services at the academy.

"Every year, you look at the technology that you must provide your students, and we need to provide them with a tool that will last them their four years," he said. Although the gap between desktop and laptop capabilities is narrowing quickly, the academy faces a choice of buying a laptop's lesser technology at a higher price but with increased portability, or a desktop's more powerful technology at a lower price, Afdahl said. The laptop experiment will help determine the best solution, he said. The academy is unique in that it is a completely computer-ready campus, what Afdahl calls the "port per pillow" concept. Each student has a network outlet, which connects students via a switched 10 megabits/sec Ethernet connection to the campus network.

An instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who declined to be named, said the academy move should be applauded. "The virtual classroom is the next-best thing to being there, and in some cases is better than being there," the official said.

Despite the new possibilities offered by portable computing technology, Afdahl said the academy does not plan to change its teaching philosophy. "We're looking at how it improves teaching and learning. That's the bottom line," he said.

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