iPads on campus - Seton Hill University leaps into the fray


iPads for everyone! (psst, I'll sell you mine for $250, cash)

Seeing this post on CNET on how Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania will now be handing out an iPad and Macbook to every full time student reminded me of a deal I helped execute almost 14 years ago as a lowly inside sales rep for a regional VAR in North Dakota, when Valley City State University (VCSU) had worked out a way to include a laptop for every full time student.

At VCSU, the corresponding tech fee was only $499 (see this recent article for details and interviews) and was designed to cover the network upgrades and support costs as well as the laptop purchase.  At the time I had just graduated from another local college where the greatest technological advancement in 4 years was the new rule in the computer lab which would allow me to bring in food so long as I kept it at an adjacent table, so the VCSU laptop announcement was big news to put it mildly.  I was very proud of our little VAR and it seemed like the following years brought similar announcements from other universities from around the country.

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010 vs 1996)!
Ok, so really I just wanted an excuse to use that as a title, but really, let's look at the two eras as a comparison for each schools revolutionary decision.
The parallels for Seton Hill (2010) and VCSU (1996) are not just obscure, they are practically non-existant.  VCSU had the distinct advantage of knowing the students would have an exact and measurable use for their tech gadget in the form of homework completion and library access.  They were already providing tech services via the computer labs on campus and the pressures to maintain and expand those labs were about to skyrocket with the rise of the internet (this was North Dakota after all, but we did have the internet.  It's not like we were living in Montana or South Dakota).  Their biggest question would be "Is this expense going to pay off or cost us money?" and according to the above 2009 article, I think the ensuing answer was YES, it paid off rather quickly.  To no small degree, VCSU did calculate a certain amount of publicity into their decision and it is here that I find the only real parallel to Seton Hill U.
Seton Hill is taking a much larger techno-gamble.  They already provide MacBooks to all full-time students, and there is no obvious need that the iPad will meet which is not already met by the MacBook.  And, it is unlikely that the next two years will see the kind of tech revolution that VCSU experienced from the explosion of internet usage.  Finally, many students may decide to turn their little redundant accessory into beer money at the first opportunity.  After all, the iPads will be owned by the students and are not required by any particular discipline or department at this point (although they are providing iPads to the faculty as well).  If fortunes change and the English department does decide to require it for something, well, what good college student can't fake or borrow their way to Christmas break and pray, pray, pray, for enough iTunes gift cards to dig them out of that hole?
Aye, there's the rub!
Seton Hill is very up front and acknowledges no greater plan for the iPad than:

But then the logic of this decision could have applied to the iTouch, the Kindle, or even electric bikes (Segways for everyone!) and yet here they are charging forward into the electronic iPad frontier.  Why the iPad?  Why now?  Does Seton Hill have a CTO who is a true visionary and can foresee a drastic change in the computing landscape?  Perhaps, but I find it much more believable that it is the CTO convincing the CFO of a true financial benefit for the iPad than the CTO trying to convince the board of directors of a coming radical technological swing.

If you assume the same price differential for the MacBook to the iPad even at educational pricing, the iPad comes in at half the cost of a MacBook per student.  Next, consider the ever increasing HTML-based nature of applications and the fact that the iPad will come with Pages, Keynote, and Numbers (the Apple iWork suite).  Then, add in the increase in classes delivered or re-delivered via Podcasts (iTunes owns over 70% of all Podcast delivery already.....did I mention the iPad does that, too), plus the fact that schools like proprietary content delivery as a matter of course (remember the stacks at the bookstore?).  I think the real gamble here is not a gamble at all but instead a calculated attempt at reducing the total cost of enrolling a student. Not only will the iPad let students come in the door cheaper but there is also the chance that the school can get out from under the two year replenishment cycle that exists on the MacBooks and move to a "one and done" version with the iPad. As far as I can tell, they could simply change the student agreement to read "Seton Hill University will provide each student with an iPad or an equivalent Apple credit that they may apply towards the purchase of the following approved MacBooks."  If Seton Hill decides to end the program after a year or two they can still claim quite the marketing coup. After all, had you heard of Seton Hill University prior to this week? Didn't think so.
I'm not simply drawing this conclusion just to help validate my earlier iPad Posting, although it is fun to validate oneself.  There really is very little difference for the general population when it comes to the capabilities of the iPad vs. the general use of the common laptop or netbook. With the current climate, I would say tough financial times call for innovative financial measures. Testing the waters of the lower cost iPad as a laptop replacement would be an excellent way for a University to stay on the leading edge of tech services while decreasing their capex for incoming students. Considering Seton Hill's long standing partnership with Apple, I would assume they may have had this idea in 2007 and had been waiting all this time for an Apple netbook announcement.
Epilogues are for writers, this here is just extra info!
Did I mention, back in 1996, the magic for VCSU came in the form of the leasing agreement and a small state subsidy.  We leased the laptops to VCSU at slightly higher margins and a 4 year lease as I recall.  The buyout was then $1.  They started collecting the $499 in year one from every student which put them instantly ahead of the payment cycle by at least six months. They also could stop refreshing the old computer labs well before they took delivery of the first laptops.  So even though the laptops cost more than the PCs in the lab, VCSU was able to get ahead on the cash flow.  Remember, in 1996 interest rates were on the rise and hovering between 7-8%.  As with many operations, running the cash flow is sometimes more important than reducing the short or long term expenditures.
Well, this put off my Faxing article yet again.  You will have to keep checking back to see if I decide faxing is a Luddite panacea or the work of the devil (I'll give you a hint, it might be both).  Thanks for reading.
Joshua Sillers

I'm proud to be a techie with a liberal arts degree and miss those late 90's parties where all the techies had liberal arts degrees because the computer programmers didn't know how the internet worked. I started in network sales then tech support, and now delivery for Unified Communications.