You are here


Tech Spotlight: Tablets, Laptops, Desktops

Computing trends, today and tomorrow
University Business, May 2012

Computer platforms are broadening on campus as colleges and universities invite students to use a variety of tablets, laptops, and desktops in mobile and traditional learning environments. Device choices expand as the emphasis is on apps over hardware.

Some institutions offer specific makes and models. Many are opening up to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), so long as the machine in question can leverage the learning environment. Technologies such as desktop virtualization are set to change the game further, taking the workload off the computer and putting it on the web. Read on for trends in how tablets, laptops, and desktops are being used­—and managed—on campus.

Tablets: Portability Rules

Slate tablets are trending fast on campus. The Wharton MBA for Executives program at the University of Pennsylvania illuminates the advantages. As Dan Alig, senior director of administrative technology at Wharton, explains, it’s “a full MBA program with a highly mobile student body meeting alternate weekends on campus.” Wharton once required students to carry mountainous study packs and textbooks. Now, all that data is accessible on standard slate tablets weighing less than two pounds.

The tablets access courseware through collaboration suites. Students select from a wide variety of additional apps for working with that content. “There are apps for studying, taking notes, and highlighting elements on screen,” says Alig.

Students stream data to their tablets in classrooms in San Francisco, Philadelphia and globally (when traveling for business between classes). Streaming wireless enables student productivity anytime, anywhere. The tablets leverage servers that push apps and data to students. Wharton tracks tablet use and applies that data to improve the learning experience.

At Wharton, tablets enable study groups that collaborate through video conferencing using multipeer connection tools. Students bring in applications offering text and visual collaboration. “The interactions are very dynamic,” says Alig.

The Wharton MBA for  Executives program issues slate tablets on which students can  access course materials. There are apps available to help with studying and note-taking. At Post University (Conn.), tablets and other devices abound as students enjoy BYOD support. However, devices must meet certain minimal criteria for students to enjoy the full benefit of the learning environment. “Requirements include some type of computer with internet access (wireless access is a plus). Students using Post’s network must have antivirus software on their computers before they can connect. Students also need the Microsoft Office suite,” says Frank Mulgrew, president of Post’s Online Education Institute.

At York College of Pennsylvania, tablets have become popular for teachers, as well. Professors use slate tablets to project videos and presentations on screen in smart classrooms, explains Karen Bumbaugh, computer support team leader. “We project a mirror image of the instructor’s tablet onto the projection screen.” The tablet’s portability and the free or modestly priced apps make it useful in these settings.

Desktops: Virtualized Realized

“At Post, the typical computer that sells for $500 at a Best Buy has more power and speed than the student will need while they are with us,” says Mulgrew. “It used to be about the hardware; now it’s about the apps and the web.” Post, therefore, recommends hardware that has strong interoperability with these things.

In fact, many institutions are moving from more powerful, traditional desktops to virtualized desktops where older computers with fewer resources and new thin clients connect to central resources that make web applications available via virtual desktop images, which the schools push out to the thin clients, Alig explains.

With thin clients, the hardware becomes interchangeable. “We can swap out the hardware in five minutes and connect it to applications in the cloud,” says Alig. That way, the students can count on more up time.

Thin clients also extend the life of the hardware, because less of it is needed to run the web-based applications. “Instead of a four-year replacement cycle, we use our old computers on campus until they fail and then replace those with $300 thin clients instead of $800 to $1,000 desktop computers,” says Alig.

Laptops: Efficiency and Performance

Systems Plus Computers serves the computing needs of Tuck Executive Education at Dartmouth College. “The student population is very hard on computers, working on those devices 16 to 20 hours per day,” says Jake Blum, president of the New Hampshire-based company. The Tuck program purchases laptops that enable IT staff to quickly reimage or replace the drives when there are support issues.

At Tuck, laptops are trending lighter for mobility. The school switched from 14-inch machines to lighter 12.5-inch models weighing 4.75 pounds. The coming new model laptops will be 3.5 pounds or less. York College of Pennsylvania is trending similarly with laptops currently at 4.5 pounds, according to Bumbaugh.

Leaders at Tuck and Dartmouth Medical School look for laptops that are well made. The covers are a light, durable carbon fiber. “Dartmouth likes the laptops with the magnesium roll cages inside, which protect the internal components against damage when the laptop body flexes during rigorous use,” says Blum.

Tuck’s laptops also have high keyboard quality and overall performance. “The backlit keyboards have internal trays that catch spills to protect the inner parts of the computer,” says Blum. Low-power processors and efficient six-cell batteries combine to enable nine hours of cordless operation. “Future models will include nine-cell batteries that run up to 13.8 hours,” he says. Tuck is standardizing on fast Solid State Drives (SSDs) that add to laptop speed, Blum adds.

Computer Replacement Planning

Strict adherence to computer replenishment cycles can lead institutions to miss savings opportunities. “We categorize different levels of users who need different degrees of computing power so we can cascade machines to get the full life from older computers,” says David W. Hostetter, associate chief information officer at Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y.). When application developers get new computers, the school hands down their older computers to students whose uses are less resource intensive.

In addition to cascading, schools can buy inexpensive models with less memory and disk space that are sufficient where end-users are primarily working on the web, according to Joanne Kossuth, vice president of operations and CIO at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering (Mass.). “Universities realize some of the biggest savings by replacing a $1,200 PC and monitor with a $400 tablet or notebook computer,” says Lawrence Imeish, principal consultant at Dimension Data, a global IT provider.

For the future, schools are looking at cloud services or virtualized desktops to save on hardware purchases, according to Imeish. Cloud services keep most of the application workload in the cloud and off the local computer. Likewise, virtualized desktop environments keep most of the work on a server and off the thin clients. “We are looking seriously at what a thin client solution can do for us,” shares Scott Coopee, assistant vice president in the Office of Information Technology at Western New England University (Mass.). In either case, the institution can purchase cheaper computers with fewer hardware resources.

Higher education is also adapting to the BYOD trend. “Instead of buying devices, you need to support what your constituents bring,” says Kossuth. “BYOD will soon do to university-owned and managed devices what cell phones did to phone lines in dorm rooms,” says Imeish.

Coaxing Computers to Lead Long Lives

Desktop virtualization is a gift that truly keeps on giving. “This is a great way to get more life out of older hardware. By moving most of the computing and storage off the computer and onto central servers, you decrease the power and storage requirements of the endpoint device, giving new life to older machines and enabling them to run the latest operating systems and applications, as well,” says Imeish.

Colleges can also maintain productive computer use by managing the security of these devices. “It adds to user productivity by limiting down time from security issues,” says Hostetter. “We manage security through centralized tools and by keeping software patched.”

Ultimately, students relate device productivity directly to the available services and applications. “A video conference-capable tablet with 50 applications could be more productive than a PC with five applications. Another way to increase productivity is to make sure the usability of the device and software is super simple. This will drive end-user adoption, which can drive up end-user productivity,” says Imeish.

Smart Computing

This year’s computers are trending toward popular tablets, laptops, and desktops with enough resources to handle applications moving online and off the device. Higher ed leaders who assess user profiles and desktop virtualization trends can cascade existing machines, buy just-right tablets for mobility, and avoid purchasing desktops or laptops with double the performance (if no one needs that improvement), and have their institutions well equipped for the future.