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Heading off to campus? Better pack plenty of technology

Have a child heading off to college this fall? Then most likely you know that an expense nearly as inevitable as tuition is purchasing a new computer — often a laptop.

“It is almost essential to have one going to college now,” said Homer Coffman, chief information officer for the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. “Most students coming to campus either have a computer with them or end up purchasing one in the first quarter. Even though we already have 500 computers available at computer labs across the campus open for student uses, students still usually also have a personal computer.

“Computers are becoming so pervasive it is hard to draw the line between personal and educational use. It is just part of their life. All our records are on line such as grades and faculty evaluations. And students also want to get the latest game or music download. There are probably more students online than walking around on campus. A lot of students are doing their research and study remotely rather than going to the library. Twenty years ago you had to be on campus. Today boundaries are not blocked by geography anymore. I think that helps students out a lot.”

Southern Miss and other state colleges have arrangements with computer manufacturers for student discounts. At Southern Miss, students can get a 30% discount with IBM and can go online to purchase Dell computers at a discount. There are also bargains on software.

“Software is really what costs in the long run, and with Microsoft, we get huge discounts,” Coffman said. “The $300 Microsoft Office Professional Suite costs students $80. We also give all the students free anti-virus software when they get here. As soon as they plug in their computer, that is a huge issue. Viruses can cause havoc with our network. Students are bringing computers right out of the box. If new PCs aren’t protected, it really impacts them significantly.”

Southern Miss has been a wireless campus for several years. Coffman said they like the concept that students can take their laptops almost anywhere on campus from dorms to classrooms and connect to the wireless network.

With computer users literally in the thousands, keeping the network up to the demand is always a challenge. Coffman said they are currently upgrading to increase speed and bandwidth not just for students, but faculty and staff.
While today’s young people are generally somewhat computer savvy, often they don’t have all the finesse needed to use computers at college. Coffman said they need to learn to practice safe computing — taking the same precautions a business uses to make sure data is secure. That includes good virus protection, spyware software and making backup copies of work. There are help desks at Southern Miss to help students with questions, and students can even get general hardware assistance if they aren’t able to have the problem resolved through the manufacturer.

Coffman said universities are being bombarded by security issues because campus networks usually don’t have the same security precautions as businesses. “We have to take extra precautions,” he said. “If you look at all the security threats, universities are huge risk areas. Most hackers will go to a university first because of its open architecture. Then they do attacks on businesses with computers they have taken over at a university. At the university, we have intellectual capital we have to protect. It makes my life very interesting trying to balance between security and student privacy. We have to be sure students’ confidential information is protected. That is also a big issue now for universities.”

At campuses in Mississippi, it is likely most of the student computers are being purchased online rather than at a local retailer.

“Buying online is really, in some ways, a good way to go because you can get exactly what you want rather than be dependent on what might be in a store,” said Joe Farris, spokesman for Mississippi State University. “You can specify exactly what you want and then get it really fast. I suspect a lot of students buy this way, especially laptops. That is probably a large proportion of what students are buying these days. And manufacturers like Gateway, Dell and IBM provide educational discounts to students.”

Mitchell Diggs, a spokesman for the University of Mississippi, says the lack of outlets like Office Max or Office Depot in Oxford encourages online purchases.

“The closest discount computer retailers would be in Tupelo or Memphis,” Diggs said. “Laptops seem to be the most popular choice from what I see with kids walking around on campus.”

Dr. Buster Hale, associate vice chancellor for information technology at Ole Miss, said that there is a continual race to keep up with the infrastructure demand from increased usage by students and staff.

“We run close to capacity in the fall when students arrive,” Hale said. “We have just gone through an upgrade of our backbone, the infrastructure to support our network. Part of that was because of increasing demand by students and other members of the university community. You have to keep improving your infrastructure.”

Their statistics show at least 80% of the students come with computers, of the 3,500 students who live on campus. Hale said with the increasing availability of wireless, notebooks and laptop computers are very attractive.

“The library now has wireless,” Hale said. “Many of the dorms have wireless in the lobby areas. A lot of the areas where student congregate have wireless.”

The university has student computer labs open 24 hours per day, so it isn’t an absolutely necessity that students bring a computer.

Ole Miss also provides free anti-virus software. Hale said that isn’t altruistic; it is cheaper than dealing with infected computers.

“By having a site license, it was cheaper to purchase anti-virus software and make it available to all students,” Hale said. “When viruses bombard our system, we end up having to take down parts of network to isolate computers. It really is a drain on our resources.”

“But it certainly is convenient,” Hale said. “Personal computers make it easier to stay organized. Especially in classes where the professor is lecturing a lot, it is very important. Computers are a reality on campus. They are an integral part of the university curriculum. Students must know how to use them. All the services like registering and dropping classes are online. The students really have to be very computer literate in order to function at the university.

“Technology is expensive. It is expensive for the parent. It is also expensive for the university. But it is a necessity.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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