- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

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 of the time, transforming living and learning.

While richer schools moved more cautiously, Wesleyan spent millions of dollars — some of it borrowed — to wire its campus with cutting-edge technology, train faculty to use the equipment as a teaching tool and subsidize a requirement that every student lease a laptop computer.

For a school with an endowment of about $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 many 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 that 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, said Steve Jones, vice president for financial affairs.

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.

David Thomas says he stepped down as college treasurer in 1997, the first year laptops were distributed, partly out of concern that 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 that 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.

Critics say the technology program failed to accomplish one of its principal goals. Applications are down compared with a decade ago.

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