Ten Years Ago, Part of My Professional Career Ended

Today my former colleagues at Drew marked that ten years ago today was the last Computer Initiative handout.

It’s impossible to underestimate the Computer Initiative’s (later known as the Drew Laptop Program) influence on my life. When I arrived to Drew as a student, there were brand new MS-DOS desktop computers set up in our dorm rooms, and our year was the first that each student got their own Epson dot matrix printer. Our year was also the first that all incoming students were given VAX accounts, although you needed a phone line in your room to dial up (the computers did have 1200 baud modems.) The following year was the first year we had a campus-wide phone system–each student got their own phone number, and a box that gave them a snappy 9600 bps connection to a brand new Campus-Wide Information System (CWIS) with email and everything.

Our year was also the last desktop year. After that we gave out Zenith Supersport “laptops” (you would be very uncomfortable with these 10 pound devices on your lap for a day.) I started working in the Computer Center in October of my freshman year (after realizing I would run out of money quickly if I didn’t have a job) and that summer was the first time I worked on the computer distribution for the students. Back then we didn’t image computers (no hard drive!) but we created a boot floppy with various information, games, and utilities. One of my jobs was to edit the shareware (freeware?) adventure game we distributed to students with a hex editor because the original author had misspelled “cooridor”.

Computer Handout 1989
Welcome letter for the Technology Handbook “signed” by Drew President and former NJ governor Tom Kean

I supported the computer handout and distribution for nearly every year after that (with exceptions for 1991 and 1992 when I was in graduate school.) We went through many vendors–Epson, Zenith, Panasonic, Digital, Texas Instruments, Acer, and Compaq, before settling on IBM/Lenovo Thinkpads for the PC option for the rest of the program. Every year I had some role in making sure the computers were ready to go out, whether it was helping determine the model(s) we would offer, determining what OS we’d put on them (really, we figured everyone would want Windows Vista), managing the logistics of distribution (we could distribute over 400 computers in 4 hours at our peak, more than a computer a minute, including signing contracts and providing at least a box and a computer case.) We created custom tools to put the computers in our Active Directory and preconfigure the user account. We bought lots of pizza, donuts and bagels. We once set an employee to Indanapolis for a few days to work with the factory.

By the early- to mid-2000s, people actually started resenting getting a computer when they “already had a computer”. We usually convinced people that getting a preconfigured computer from us that would be repaired on campus and supported for all four years they were at Drew was a great value, and hey, it’s included in tuition anyway! Still, we bowed to pressure eventually and changed the program to being bundled to being funded by a technology fee (which also was used to fund critical Wi-Fi and infrastructure upgrades). In 2004 we started allowing “exceptions” to the required computer.

One of the weird things about our program is it kept us very PC-centric for a very long time. It’s worth noting that the decision to select an original vendor was made days before the original Macintosh was announced in 1984, and things might have gone very differently if the timeline were different. We only reluctantly started allowing faculty to have Macs in the late 1990s. (and yes, those faculty surely felt like crusaders fighting the infidels.). In 2010 we started offering Macs as an option (taken by over 60% of students). To ready our pretty Mac-phobic staff and learn what we needed we initiated Project Rambo. Rambo is a type of apple although I did like the other connotations of the project name. (It was one of my favorite project names I created at Drew, along with Causeway, a new file server project, and a project to modernize our helpdesk software for which I created the acronym SSSSSS, pronounced “Six S”, or “success”. I wish I remember was all the “S’s” stood for. But I digress.) We learned what we needed to and welcomed Macs to our environment. It was fine.

We knew that 2012 would be our last year, you need to announce early enough so you’re not doing a bait-and-switch on prospective students. So we sent a call out for alumni who worked previous computer handouts to join us. To be fair many of us were still working there, but about half the people in this picture came for the day:

Computer Initiative Alumni, 2012

By 2013 we only had a requirement that a student have a computer that meets minimum specifications. And you know what? By then, it was okay. Computing had become truly ubiquitous, which was the original goal of the CI. We could support what students needed on whatever they had. The rise of mobile devices had started to make laptops irrelevant (iPads and Chromebooks had barely begun).

It was a lot of work and a lot of crazy fun, and I learned so much about every aspect of higher education information technology. There’s a huge customer service responsibility, it’s complicated logistics, it was a commitment to making things work for 4 years for the students. I got to play politics when the program was under threat by administrators who didn’t understand it. (Drew had some tough enrollment years after the program ended, and while it will never be possible to identify all the reasons that might have happened, some people may have not liked losing something previous classes had been getting). Another interesting anecdote is the number of people I know from Drew who graduated in the 90s and early 2000s who ended up doing computer jobs for a living even when their majors were very different. I think the unique environment of Drew at the time really enabled in people a facility with technology that has served them well to this day. I frequently wonder if we can catch that lightning in a bottle again–and we probably will with some future technology. There’s probably still an opportunity for the first school to embrace a ubiquitous application of a new technology and pilot the environment where that creates new opportunities.

I couldn’t find many schools still doing technology programs like Drew did. Drexel had beat us by a year, and they stopped even before Drew. Seton Hall is out there still, with ThinkPads too. Moravian is proud to give MacBook Pros and iPads to every student. But most places have realized that students can bring their own machine and it will do what they need in most cases, and for the ones it cannot the institution can provide the facilities necessary. Students also increasingly do more on their phones and that’s good too.

I could be boastful and say that programs like Drew’s helped bring about their own obsolescence. And maybe that’s a little true but technology pervasiveness was likely inevitable. And perhaps also a double-edged sword.

I will leave you with a video made in 2010 about the program, in which you can see a lot of how it worked near the end.

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Mike Richichi

I'm an inveterate geek who's somehow become a leader in higher education information technology. These are some of my thoughts.