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Technology gamble

By Justin Pope
The Associated Press

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — 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 the equipment as a teaching tool and subsidizing a requirement that every student lease a laptop computer.

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, administrators say technology is enhancing lectures, prodding students to explore on their own, and extending 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 educated generations of community leaders — teachers, lawyers and, though less frequently now, Methodist ministers. But its isolated, mountain setting has made 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.

To pay for the program, Wesleyan began charging students a technology fee that covered network expenses and a leased IBM Think Pad laptop, to be upgraded every two years and returned at graduation.

The school decided to subsidize the fee for needy students, an investment Wesleyan President William Haden said would set Wesleyan apart from its peers. “This was an opportunity to add some value to what students were paying for their education,” he said.

But the program also weighed heavily on Wesleyan’s already pressed financial aid budget. On balance, the initiative cost the college several hundred thousand dollars per year, Vice President for Financial Affairs Steve Jones said.

Some of those costs were unavoidable. But there were concerns from the beginning that a school with an annual budget of less than $25 million was taking on too much.

Former college treasurer David Thomas says he stepped down in 1997, the first year laptops were distributed, partly out of concern Wesleyan’s board had failed to scrutinize the project. “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.”

Students also were concerned — as laptop prices fell, they wondered why they shouldn’t just buy their own computers.

In 2001, Wesleyan extended the laptop lease to three years. 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. But Haden and Jones said it wasn’t the technology program that caused Wesleyan’s financial problems. They blame the troubles on the large tuition discounts Wesleyan has been forced to offer to fill its classrooms.

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.”

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.

Warner, demonstrating his PowerPoint lecture presentations on his porch swing, says he enjoys using technology. But 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.

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.

Skinner is a fan of the technology program, but acknowledges prospective students pay more attention to 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.

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.

Still, Wesleyan administrators point to the initiative’s success. Parker, Wesleyan’s librarian, says ubiquitous computing has brought her building 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 because students have a better sense of what’s in the library.

Thanks to high-tech training, the percentage of faculty survey respondents who called themselves novices had fallen by 2000 from 45 percent to 5 percent, said Karen Petitto, a specialist in technology education. She 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.”

On the 2003 National Survey of Student Engagement, Wesleyan students responded more positively than the national liberal arts college average to questions about technology use in almost every category. Some alumni say they benefited.

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.

But as with the faculty, the quality of 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.

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.

While he acknowledges that, with the benefit of hindsight, he might have handled details of how the program was financed differently, Haden makes no apologies for taking bold steps that 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.”