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Colleges weigh new prerequisite: A laptop in every backpack

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"Everybody in the community talks with each other more frequently," says David Brown, a professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "Students run into trouble, they e-mail one another, e-mail the faculty. The whole culture changes."

Advocates also affirm that tools of technology have an impact on the learning process. Computers lend themselves to group projects and collaborative research - essential skills when preparing students for a workforce growing less rooted in the mastery of a single discipline.

Still, PCs for all has been slow to gain a foothold. According to the Core Data Service 2003 Summary Report, forthcoming, by the not-for-profit EDUCAUSE, only about 3.2 percent of colleges require students to own or lease PCs.

Kenneth Green, the founding director of The Campus Computing Project, a group that tracks technology in higher education, says schools have been deterred, in part, by costs and challenges of creating a compelling curriculum that merits a PC requirement.

For Donald Heller, an associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University, the added burden of buying or leasing a computer can be prohibitive. Besides, he says, many colleges don't want to dictate how students should spend their money. "Universities and colleges want students to make a judgment on whether having a laptop ... best facilitates their learning," Mr. Heller says.

While some see technology as an economic divider, others see it as an equalizer. Lee Torda, an English professor at Bridgewater State College, says at first she was concerned that her English classes would become so bogged down by technology that mastering fonts would take precedence over mastering grammar. But she came to appreciate its uniting factor. "Technology is cultural capital," she says.

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