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Colleges weigh new prerequisite: A laptop in every backpack

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As college freshmen head off to campus this year, they're toting cellphones in one pocket, iPods in another. And that click-clack you hear isn't the jingle of new dormitory keys - it's their fingers pounding instant messages back and forth.

So last week, as incoming students at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts waited for tech staff to configure their laptops - which three state schools are requiring all student to have this fall - they didn't exactly feel they were on the cusp of a revolution.

"I would have gotten one anyway," says Meaghan Noonan, shrugging. She used a computer all throughout high school; her new laptop would have been a graduation gift from her grandparents, requirement or not.

But the laptop requirement by some state colleges in Massachusetts has renewed debate about the reach of technology, sparking both excitement and incertitude across the country.

For some, the proliferation of high-tech gadgets in every dorm and classroom - indeed on every cargo-pant clad student - offers a chance to transform the very act of learning.

But for others, requiring a laptop in every backpack ignores economic realities and drives a wedge between rich and poor. And even if all students could afford a laptop, some professors say, it's likely to be used more for downloading music than deconstructing Dante.

"It's ironic that higher education, writ large, has been slower to integrate [the Internet] into its other functions, the way some institutions have," says Ken Kay, the chairman of the consulting group Infotech Strategies, which specializes in technology in education. While research has been revolutionized by the wireless world, "we are only at the very front end of it having a profound impact on how we teach."

Tech in the classroom

Computers have been part of a classroom's fabric for years. Some colleges and universities have required their students to own them since the 1980s. While some academics say learning, which has long predated the Internet, isn't enhanced by PCs, others say advances in technology have created a global village on campus, bringing sprawling universities back to a small-town atmosphere.

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