March 4, 2011

Requiring Laptops at Design Schools

Emily Carr University recently proposed a new policy that would require all students entering their design programs to buy a new Macbook Pro and Adobe CS software. I'm not sure this is such a good idea. Here's why:

*Rolls up sleeves.*

I completely understand that the overall trend in computing is away from desktop computers and towards laptops. This has been happening for a long time now. I can also appreciate that Emily Carr (like most schools) is tight on space and that the lowering demand for desktop computing and the increase in laptop ownership makes it necessary for the school to change a few things. I should also say that I'm an alum of ECU, so this doesn't affect me directly, but decisions like this do affect me indirectly. Trends in the culture of education, the culture of institutions, work environments and the thinking of designers I'm likely to work with down the road are shaped by decisions like this one.

I should also mention that I've been a happy Mac user for years, so this isn't about the choice of pushing Macbooks, per se.

I'm against this policy for the following reasons:

1) Although certain tools are common to most designers (Macs + Adobe CS), part of becoming a good designer is selecting, learning and modifying one's own toolkit. All designers do this. Adapting intelligently to technological change is an important part of being a good designer. This applies to major software apps, the various utilities that connect them, online services, electronic hardware tools, pencils, paper sketchbooks, paints, whiteboards, your cellphone, your sunglasses, the clothes on your back and the philosophies and biases that attend each of these components.

Having students make their own decisions about their toolkits is essential to producing designers with a strong sense of technological agency. Requiring a standardization of these tools within a school may make things simpler for tech support and teaching efficiency, but it does so at the expense of creating students who are more active in manipulating their own technological environment.

If a student wants to use a PC, why should a school say no? If a student believes in using Linux and open-source design software (which is getting really good these days), why should a school say no? If you're in a class on print design, should your teacher really care if you're using PhotoShop or Gimp? If you're in an industrial design class, should your teacher really care whether you use Solidworks or Blender? Of course not.

Students should be encouraged to assemble their own ecosystem of tools. Hell, if one of my design students wanted to do all her work with pencil and paper and masking tape, I'd be thrilled. We might all learn something from her.

2) Clearly, students come to school with diverse financial pressures and capabilities. School should be a place that accommodates this diversity. Learning happens from within this context. The choices that students make at school are often motivated by their own financial history and their expectations of new learning potentials and debt loads. One size does not fit all. School should be a time of respite from these pressures for a moment, while learning about how to fit their education into future economic conditions, be it as a business owner, an employee, a volunteer, a recipient of grants and patronage, or some combination of these (or none of the above). For students on limited budgets or students not yet ready to invest in their own computers (or students whose computers just fell into a hot kiln), it is important to know they can rely on some desktop computing facilities to do their work.

I'm a grad student at MIT right now, arguably the top science and technology school in the world (with a strong tradition of art + design education). They could easily try to implement a similar policy, but they don't because there is an implicit understanding here of these two arguments: the importance of diversity of resources and equal access to those resources. These principles make for a great learning community.

I know a number of design students here who rely on campus desktop computing labs to do their work. These are top students who simply do not have the resources to drop on a computer and high-end commercial software. Some of these students were hard up on their way into school. Some are now hard-up mid-way through their degree. Again, one size does not fit all.

So when the ECU fact sheet says "we want to do this because OCAD and Capilano are doing this," it's just a weak argument. If you want people to innovate, you don't do it by standardizing. You do it by creating an environment of diversity, backed by empowerment and equal opportunity.

To be clear, I'm not against:

1) Schools recommending various tools for purchase.

2) Offering bulk hardware discounts and cheap software subscriptions to their students. (Emily Carr is offering discounts that a student could already get from Apple or Adobe on their own.)

3) Reducing computer lab space for more laptop-friendly spaces (so long as there are still sufficient desktop labs available for students.)

4) Adjusting to new technological realities by making learning even more dynamic, fun and rewarding.

5) I'm also not against anyone who wants to buy a Macbook Pro and install Adobe CS5 on it. Go for it. I have. Just don't make everyone do the same or give people a hard time for wanting to think different.

6) I'm not even against the idea of requiring all students to have some kind of laptop (this seems inevitable), so long as the school is ready to adjust their curricula to allow students to use any kind of hardware and software — even $300 laptops with open source software.

In fact, I'd even say that the only kind of laptops design schools should be requiring are specifically $300 laptops with open-source software. It's good for the planet (green and sustainable, yo), it's good for developing countries (we're with you brothers and sisters, friends and comrades), it's good for public wellbeing (fighting the tragedy of the commons) and it's good for business: why not spend those extra $2000 from what would have been your Macbook budget on funding your design prototypes and a few trips to design conferences?

Phew.

1 comment :

Nathaniel Akin said...

I'm an Emily Carr grad and this is the first I've heard of this plan. I also use a MacBook and CS5, but think that requiring their use by students is an awful idea. It makes sense from a standardized technical teaching standpoint, but you've done a great job of pointing out why it doesn't make sense.

By their very nature institutions have a difficult time moving at the pace of technical development, and instituting requirements for the use of specific tools could actually hinder a students technical skills by trying to standardize them too much.

When I graduated in 98 from the film program my grad film was all done digitally - at that time I had to fight for the right to do it that way because finishing on film was a requirement. I find it amusing that the tools I had to fight to use are now being proposed as a requirement.