Apples for All

As several universities start new MacBook or iPhone giveaways to students, educational and marketing strategies are both in play.
March 5, 2008

Starting this fall, any student can get a free MacBook. All he or she has to do is apply, get accepted and decide to attend Oklahoma Christian University.

The cost is mostly built into the tuition price, of course. The university has provided PC-based laptops to its students since 2001, encouraging professors to integrate technology into the classroom and let students learn through online or hybrid course material on their computers. The laptop program has other advantages, too: the university offers software and hardware support on site, complete with loaners for those with computers in the shop. Now, Oklahoma Christian is following a "natural progression," said John Hermes, the chief technology officer, by switching entirely to Macs.

The university isn't alone. George Fox University, an evangelical Quaker institution in Newberg, Oregon, recently announced a similar change in its over 20-year-old laptop program. Until now, students could choose between an Apple or a PC laptop. As of this fall, PCs will no longer be an option. About 70 percent of incoming freshmen last year chose the Mac option anyway, mirroring the increasing popularity of Apple products on college campuses across the country: In 2007, Apple reportedly overtook Dell as the top supplier of laptops in the higher education market.

Now, some institutions -- mostly smaller ones -- are starting to respond. Already, a handful of campuses are switching their computer labs entirely over to Mac machines that can boot to either OS X or to Windows. George Fox is taking the opposite approach: It has essentially no all-purpose computer labs, betting instead that students will use their laptops. It, like Oklahoma Christian, will offer the MacBooks preinstalled with both operating systems to allow for dual-boot capabilities.

Others have also gotten into the act. Abilene Christian University, in Texas, is giving out free iPhones -- or, for those who don't want to pay for a new cellular plan, iPod touches -- to its incoming students this fall. (A spokesman for the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities said it seemed to be a coincidence that announcements came in such close proximity from several Christian institutions, noting that they tend to be small and flexible in responding to student demand. Lyon College, which is Presbyterian, also recently announced a free laptop program, although not a Mac-focused one.)

The Abilene Christian announcement recalls Duke University's widely publicized decision in 2004 to distribute free iPods to all its incoming freshmen. The program attracted skepticism from the start, and it eventually evolved into a sort of iPod rental service for students enrolled in specific courses whose professors sought to build digital content into their assignments.

For some, that was too little emphasis on the devices' actual use in the classroom, and too late. The question, when it comes to such high-tech giveaways, often comes down to: Is it a marketing ploy? Or is there a reasoned, comprehensive plan behind adopting a new technology?

"I think the Duke thing was a gimmick, I can’t imagine it produced anything more," said Rick Hesel, a principal at the higher education marketing consulting firm Art & Science. But, he added, if distributing such devices is "part of a larger idea about integrating them, about the educational experience of students, then it might have a greater value.”

("Never heard of Abilene Christian University? We're guessing a wide majority of the general public hasn't either, but the institution is definitely getting its name out there by promising each incoming freshman this fall an iPhone or iPod touch," said a typical post on the technology blog Engadget.)

Ensuring that the devices are used in a way that's relevant to student learning, and with faculty input, was a concern at Abilene Christian from the start. "This is not a technology initiative, it’s a learning initiative," said Phil Schubert, the university's executive vice president. He said that since a high percentage of students bring their own laptops anyway, the university decided four or five years ago to look ahead to mobile technology. When the iPhone was announced last year, he said, officials began to see the possibilities of "transformational learning that could occur if ... these devices could do what a lot were saying."

Schubert said the university developed a "pretty robust philosophy and a vision for how we would use potentially these type of devices," beginning with the faculty. From over 100 research applications last summer, the university will fund 40 to 50 proposals from faculty who will develop uses for the iPhone and test them out in a specific classroom setting. One looks to simplify taking roll by using the iPhone to display pictures of students and send attendance information over the Internet to a central database (in Blackboard, for example). Other possibilities are taking real-time quizzes in class, with results displayed anonymously on the screen afterwards. The university has also suggested homework alerts and checking meal balances as possible applications for the devices.

Giving out the iPhones only to incoming freshmen has several advantages, Schubert added. On a purely technological level, the university could more easily determine whether the sudden influx of wi-fi-enabled devices will strain the university's wireless network. The program could also take advantage of unified orientation sessions and the more generalized freshman curriculum to create a meaningful, integrated experience, he said.

For Greg Smith, George Fox's chief technology officer, laptop giveaway programs (including his own university's) are "partly a marketing hook" that "seals the deal" for some students. But the real advantage for his institution, he said, was the fact that it could control the software and ensure that there would be "no computer headaches" for students. (The university technically owns the laptops until students finish their third year, when they have essentially completed an installment plan paid through their tuition.)

"It has really made support advantageous. In many respects I think the cost of the program is less by doing it this way," he said.

One possible advantage of the single-platform campus that he and his colleagues have already considered is the possibility of using iChat for online office hours or working in group projects. Smith predicted that in a few years, "this campus is gonna be all Apple."


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