Laptops for Learning bridges classroom tech divide

UND students in need can receive a free laptop through a new CARES Act-funded program

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Attending college amid a global pandemic that has restricted in-person interactions and emphasized online education is not easy. A slate of technological challenges accompanies remote classes. While many students may battle unstable connectivity or miss a digital application or two, some face a much more fundamental obstacle: they have no computer.

This is where the Laptops for Learning program at the University of North Dakota comes in. Established through a CARES Act grant last month, the program runs through December, providing brand-new laptops to undergraduate, graduate, law and medical students, who are eligible for federal financial aid. Students can keep the laptop as long as they complete the term.

“The goal of the Laptops for Learning program is to help students complete their degree or certificate program at UND,” said Vice Provost of Strategic Enrollment Management Janelle Kilgore. Kilgore oversees the initiative together with Madhavi Marasinghe, UND’s chief information officer.

The below conversation with Kilgore and Marasinghe delves into the importance of the program at UND and its key features. The Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Madhavi Marasinghe

What are the benefits of the Laptops for Learning program for students? Why have such an offering?

Marasinghe: In these unprecedented times, many have lost their jobs or don’t have access to technology that may have been readily available pre-COVID. For instance, if students used to go to the computer lab to get their homework done, they may not be able to do that easily now due to COVID-19 restrictions. Students also may not have the resources to purchase a laptop to continue their studies.

Our main goal was to make sure that technology doesn’t become a barrier to student success. Because of their portability, laptops are the most helpful technology for students. So we requested funding to provide laptops for students with financial need to alleviate some of the challenges in this current situation.

Our hope is that every student who receives a laptop will make use of it to be successful at UND.

The Laptops for Learning program was made available through a CARES Act grant that UND has received. How many laptops have been purchased?

Marasinghe: The CARES grant was for a little over $4.4 million. We can buy about 3,500 laptops. We were able to work with Dell to get a very good deal on Dell Precision 3550 laptops. This is a high-end, business-grade laptop. In addition to built-in camera, mic, and speakers, the laptop has a touchscreen where you can write with your finger or a stylus instead of using the keyboard. This can be very useful when writing equations and other symbols.

Janelle Kilgore

How many students at UND are eligible for a laptop?

Kilgore: Since the middle of August, we have notified roughly 3,400 students who are eligible for the laptop program. There are roughly 2,100 students who have agreed to the terms and verified their shipping address. One-Stop Student Services and Student Finance are following up with eligible students who may have missed their email/text message about the program.

We have had some students who have deleted the message thinking it was spam or a phishing attempt. We want to make sure these students do not miss out on this amazing opportunity.

From request to receipt, how long do students have to wait?

Marasinghe: When we went into partnership with Dell, we were expecting a turnaround of less than 4 weeks from the date a student submits the request form to receiving the laptop. Unfortunately, the logistics of request-to-receipt got complicated because each request had to be addressed separately instead of as a bulk order. Additionally, there are location address changes that students are requesting after they have submitted the request.

Due to such reasons, we have had a few hiccups that has delayed shipments. We are in touch with Dell daily to process the requests faster, and the process is getting better with every new shipment.

What about students who are not eligible through the Laptops for Learning program but cannot afford to buy a laptop?

Kilgore: Students who are not eligible for the laptop program are encouraged to apply for the Open Door Scholarship or the Angel Fund. These two programs are great ways to receive funding if students have been impacted by COVID or even are struggling to make ends meet.

UND is very fortunate, as we have generous donors who helped make both of these programs happen.