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Back to class: technology enhances life on campus

In a Best Buy store in Jackson last week, a man pulled from his pocket a detailed list and grumbled under his breath. Next to him, his teenage daughter nervously twirled a lock of hair while he asked a clerk about the cost and availability of a computer required for fall semester classes.

“Nobody tells you about these hidden costs, which add up to several thousand dollars,” he mumbled to no one in particular. The clerk sympathized. After all, the scene had been played out several times during the back-to-school shopping season.

Even though none of the state’s Big Four universities — Jackson State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss — actually require entering freshmen to bring a computer to campus, students’ technology needs run the gamut from simple software programs to sometimes pricey hardware. And state budget cuts have impacted the universities’ ability to provide the technology at no charge.

Southern Miss

“Right now, the university has no specific requirements for students, but some of the courses require computers,” said Homer Coffman, chief technology officer for Southern Miss, the first university in the state to host a totally wireless Internet campus. “However, we have everything available for students to use at the school’s six open-access computer laboratories and laptops can be checked out through our library.”

Coffman, who joined Southern Miss in March to oversee the school’s five technology officers, said his son, a senior at Georgia Tech, was required to have a computer — and upgrade it at the end of his sophomore year.

“For the first time ever this fall, Southern Miss will be providing laptops to our 10 presidential scholars,” said Coffman. “We’re also looking into a program to provide students with laptop computers — added to tuition — maybe sometime down the road.”

Southern Miss has negotiated student discounts with Apple and Gateway vendors and offers some financial assistance for computer purchases through the financial aid department. However, students should know that Microsoft Works, a common application on new computers, is not compatible with Southern Miss Computer Labs, which feature Microsoft Office.

Jackson State

Dr. Willie Brown, vice president for information management at Jackson State University (JSU), said even though it’s not required for incoming freshmen, it’s recommended that all students have access to a computer — laptop or desktop.

“We have five general purpose computer labs with about 500 computers total, and we have at least 10 department-specific labs, with the number of computers varying greatly,” he said. “The school makes available any needed software. JSU received a $450,000 grant last year for Microsoft software, which students can use at no charge.”

JSU is in the middle of converting the school’s network system from SCT Plus to SCT Banner. “With Banner, students can register for classes, look at financial aid offers and awards, see account summaries, grades, transcripts, and gain access to just about any normal service provided by the registrar’s office.”

Like most state universities, JSU provides students with free email accounts, but students must attend a mandatory orientation class to gain access to the network.

“We explain our policy for misuse, which I’d describe as more liberal than strict,” he said, “but there are consequences for misuse.”

So far, JSU has not imposed bandwidth restrictions. “This year, we’ll monitor it closely, and if the downloading of music or video or anything of that sort starts affecting the performance of the network, then we’ll shape the bandwidth,” said Brown.

By the spring semester, JSU should have a wireless Internet campus, said Brown. “The plan is already in place,” he said. “Getting it done is a matter of budgetary concerns for equipment and so forth. Budget cuts have been a big problem because once you install a network and make connectivity available and equip your labs, all that equipment has to be maintained and upgraded. Budget cuts have greatly affected our ability to do that.”

Ole Miss

Dr. Kathy Gates, assistant vice chancellor for information technology at Ole Miss, said technology requirements vary from school to school, “but about 85% of students come with some sort of computer anyway.”

“We go over the requirements at freshman orientation in June so students and their parents will have time to plan,” she said. “Some departments have more stringent requirements, but that’s usually later on. For example, Pharmacy requires a laptop for P3 and P4 students. The MBA program requires a laptop.”

To be specific, the University of Mississippi School of Business Administration, according to its Web site, requires its 2004-05 undergraduate students to have notebook computers with the following requirements: an Intel Pentium M processor, 256 MB RAM memory and Windows XP Home or Professional operating system. The application software should be Microsoft Office Professional 2003, Microsoft Frontpage 2003 and anti-virus software. The drives: CDRW and DVD-R, a 3.5-inch floppy for assignments and a 30 GB hard drive. The connectivity: a 10/100-wired Ethernet card. Also recommended: 802.11b/802.11g wireless NIC.

“For the first time, we purchased anti-virus software for all students,” said Gates. “That’s mainly to protect ourselves when they connect to our network.”

Ole Miss participates in the Microsoft Student Select Program, which allows student to purchase software at roughly one-fourth the retail price. The school also partners with GovConnection, a subsidiary of PC Connections, though discounts aren’t nearly as significant, said Gates. CDW Government (IBM), Apple, Dell and Gateway vendors also offer technology products at reduced prices.

As soon as students are admitted to Ole Miss, they are given a Web ID with access to SAP, the student information system, and Blackboard, a Web-based course management tool for posting syllabuses and assignments.

“We’re really pushing all of our electronic tools for convenience and to enhance the learning experience,” said Gates. “Students will take advantage of any kind of technology you put out there, and I have to believe Ole Miss is leading in that arena.”

The campus is wireless in zones, including the business and law schools. The library will come online at the end of August, and the student union will have wireless Internet access this fall, said Gates.

Like most state universities, Ole Miss will monitor bandwidth usage this year. “We may consider in the next three years using a model to monitor bandwidth usage like other universities are doing,” she said. “If students are in excess, they would have to pay for that, like a minutes cell phone model.”

Mississippi State

Some departments and colleges require or recommend specific hardware and/or software, such as the School of Accountancy, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Engineering, College of Veterinary Medicine and School of Human Sciences. The university partners with various vendors for substantial discounts on required technology.

“Freshmen in some of our colleges have no computer requirements,” said Dr. Matt Raven, director of ITS user services for Mississippi State. “They may have some by their sophomore year, but we have computer labs on campus they can access 24 hours a day.”

All Mississippi State students are provided with the Symantec anti-virus program free of charge and have access to On Campus, a student portal that links to the school’s Banner administrative system, student e-mail system, and course information, “all with a single sign-on,” said Raven.

Residence halls have a “port-per-pillow,” explained Raven. “With 155 buildings in the network, we have about 25,000 ports,” he said.

Even though the Mississippi State campus is not totally wireless, there are “hot spots that we’re growing as fast as money allows,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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