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Computing Initiative Completes Freshman Year

By purchasing the required laptops, they became the first class to participate in the first computer initiative of its kind at a public university: the Carolina Computing Initiative.

The brainchild of the late Chancellor Michael Hooker, the CCI aims to have students, faculty and staff own appropriate technology and know how to use that technology effectively.

And after the initiative's freshman year, the program has received mostly passing grades.

"It makes computing a much more natural part of a student's life," said Todd Taylor, faculty coordinator for wireless sections in Greenlaw Hall. "Before, a lot of computing needs could only be done in specific places."

CCI officials said they are pleased with the first year, although they cautioned that the program will not be fully effective for another three years. At that time, all undergraduates will be outfitted with their own laptops.

"It is hard to gauge because only so many faculty members can use (wireless technology) because not all students own laptops," said Lori Casile, director for UNC special projects, echoing a familiar response to complaints from students.

And while there have been minor glitches to deal with, such as broken computers and server problems, Casile said they were expected and remedied.

"It's something new," Taylor said. "We're all a little awkward with it. Everyone I've encountered has a very flexible attitude."

Casile said the CCI's goals for its first year included pooling student and faculty computer buying power, standardizing equipment used on campus to provide high-level support services and, most importantly, getting a computer into every freshman's hands.

"The goal was to get rid of the problem of the have and the have not," she said.

Casile said the CCI was successful on all three points.

To ensure all students could afford the Thinkpads, UNC created a $3 million grant fund to pay for nearly 1,000 students' computers. Casile said the service center has received an award from IBM for service excellence.

But Casile said it has been difficult to bring technology to students and faculty simultaneously.

"It's a chicken and egg problem," she said.

"You can't expect faculty to put resources online if (some) students can't access it, and you can't expect students to go online if there's nothing there to access. You have to build it from both sides."

CCI officials have tried to keep faculty on the cutting edge by holding workshops that teach professors how to appropriately integrate technology into their classrooms.

Casile said her office also worked on improving communication this year. Students with questions ranging from getting a grant to pay for their laptop to improving their computer's memory can now check the CCI Web site or use the CCI hotline.

The CCI program has benefited from the 40 locations on campus that have been linked to wireless Cisco Systems Inc. access points this January.

The small hubs, which are plugged into the central campus network and stored in closets or windows, provide Internet connections to laptops within a given radius.

The access points also enable an entire class of students to log on the Internet without going to a computer lab. Taylor said English classes have used this feature to teach Internet research skills.

"Students can engage in research strategies in class while we're teaching class," he said.

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But some students have used the in-class Internet time for other purposes.

"In English, we'd sit there and talk on instant messenger and check our e-mails in class," said Betsy Fisher, a freshman from New Bern.

"It was fun. The computer was distracting, but the class was boring anyway."

Casile said the CCI directors are revamping the C-TOPS training session to meet the needs of both the computer savvy and the computer illiterate. "It's been scaled back so it's not the same level of detail, but there's other training available on a volunteer basis if (students) think they need it," Casile said.

But Casile said some faculty and students have requested more student training in specific programs.

Right now, that responsibility falls to individual faculty, but Casile said the CCI faculty advisory committee is discussing the issue. Casile said a generic class can't teach everything students need to know.

"The faculty are hashing out how to train students," Casile said.

"For example, how (Microsoft) Excel is used in a chemical lab is different than how it is used in a business class."

Linwood Futrelle, operational director of the CCI, said the program will continue to smooth over rough edges and make improvements in its sophomore year.

But Casile said the feedback thus far has been encouraging.

"Overall, people have been positive," she said. "As more people understand the benefits of the program, more people are behind it."

The University Editor can be reached at udesk@unc.edu.

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