Bowdoin College is issuing 1,800 state-of-the-art iPad tablets for this fall, aimed toward ensuring equity of access to online learning and computing among all its students. Portland Press Herald File

BRUNSWICK — Looking forward to returning to Bowdoin College and reuniting with her friends, sophomore Peyton Tran said she was “definitely disappointed” to learn she and about 60% of her fellow students would continue online instruction this fall.

The campus closed in March due to the pandemic, and as it’s shown no signs of slowing, “in the last month I’ve gotten to be a little bit more relieved,” the Colorado resident said. “It’s ultimately the safest decision for everybody.”

No cases of the virus have been reported at Bowdoin; 26 have been reported in Brunswick.

Aiming to ensure equity of access to online learning and computing among all students – the freshmen allowed back on campus and the sophomores, juniors and seniors who will mostly continue working from home – Bowdoin is issuing around 1,800 Apple iPad tablets to every pupil this month. The iPad Pro devices will have Wi-Fi and cellular data, which the college will activate and cover for students with internet connection needs, along with other related equipment such as high-end video cameras and microphones.

Peyton Tran, a sophomore at Bowdoin College this fall, is optimistic that new measures in place this semester will ensure an improved online learning experience. Contributed

According to Michael Cato, Bowdoin’s senior vice president and chief information officer, even on-campus students are taking most classes online, with only a first-year writing seminar taught in person, he said.

The iPads, fully-funded by the college, will cost about $750,000 per year for a four-year lease with Apple, he explained, noting that “we made a commitment at the beginning of all this that we were going to invest in making the online experience as optimal as it possibly can be.” Seniors upon graduation can pay $1 should they wish to keep the devices, but are otherwise encouraged to return them for use by other students.

While Bowdoin was forced in March to convert to an emergency remote version of learning, the college has been much more intentional about designing online classes for this fall, Cato said. Synchronous learning, among all students at the same time, will still take place, but that presented challenges this spring with issues such as students logging on from different time zones across the globe. Tran was getting up at 6:30 a.m. to attend an online organic chemistry class.

Hence a greater focus this fall on asynchronous learning, Cato explained, where students could more conveniently view “three or four short recorded pieces, with some interactive component that the student has to complete as they go through each one. And then the synchronous piece is an opportunity for the faculty member and the student to dive into what they learned.”

Professors can therefore be more responsive to the varying needs of students, Cato said.

“Equity-wise, it’s going to be super helpful for a lot of students, and I think that’s a really good step that we could have taken,” Tran said. She struggled this past year with taking notes in college, a different experience from high school, she said, and the iPad will provide “one place for me to have all my things,” while the Apple Pencil 2 will allow her to continue taking handwritten notes and draw pictures, “and communicate with your professors … in a way that you couldn’t in the spring semester.”

Concern about Bowdoin students getting the high-quality education they expect is “where all of this work is coming from,” Cato said. “Our calling card is the intimate connection between our faculty and our students.”

Achieving that connection in the virtual world is a key objective. Cato said some advantages have been found in having a unified digital platform between professors and students, such as the ability to bring in several guest experts in various fields to enrich learning.

In the real world, freshmen are invited to live on campus this fall to help them acclimate to the college environment, and also to build community between students and facility, Cato said.

Tuition this fall for on-campus students will be nearly $34,000, while those staying off-campus will be charged almost $28,000, the tuition component only, according to the college.

Tran praised the school for doing its best in difficult circumstances, and noted that “everybody’s hands are kind of tied, in terms of the tuition.” Tran said she understood a slight reduction in school cost, but acknowledged that “it was frustrating for a lot of students.”

Tran, who looks to major in biology or chemistry, said she expects the quality of education this fall to be “close to the same” as what she experienced on campus. “But it’s pretty much impossible to guarantee; this isn’t really what anybody signed up for. Only time will tell.”

Bowdoin has 167 students who are deferring until next spring or fall, according to Scott Hood, senior vice president for communications and public affairs.

The college plans to have more than 200 non-first-year students on campus this fall, many of whom have “extenuating circumstances that make it very difficult for them to study from home,” he said.

Lily Tedford of South Portland, a rising junior, is among those students. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder made focusing at home this spring particularly challenging, and she had concerns about mental health if she remained off campus this fall, she said.

“I have a lot of faith in the precautions that Bowdoin’s going to be taking” to keep returning students safe, said Tedford, who plans to become an English teacher. Those include face coverings, social distancing and self-monitoring for virus symptoms.

“I’m a lot more excited than I am nervous,” she said. “I’m not nervous at all.”

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