All posts by Thomas Wick

Winona State Laptop Program Falls Short Of Expectations for Some Students

by Tobias Mann & Tom Wick

The Winona State University Digital Life and Learning program, known around campus simply as the laptop program, started in 1997, when it began putting laptops in the hands of every full time student on campus.

In 2002 the program was made a mandatory part of attending WSU.

Today, students are offered their choice of a Mac or PC. As of summer 2014, WSU offered Apple’s Macbook Air and HP’s Elitebook 840.

These notebooks while sufficient for most university tasks fail to meet the needs of a subset of students and faculty.

Many departments such as graphic design require students to use a Mac. For many this means trying to get their computationally intense work done with the rather anemic Macbook Air.

For much of the work done in the graphic design department the laptops simply cannot cope with the workloads associated with 3D modeling.

Because of this, many students must spend long hours in computer labs sharing a limited number of machines just to get their course work done on time due to the computationally intense nature of encoding video or rendering 3D models.

This is true for many students in departments across campus including students in the Mass Communications and Engineering colleges.

Many electronic media students in the Mass Communications department are asked on a weekly basis to shoot and render high-definition video, a process that is painfully slow for the Macbook Air; it can take as long as fifteen minutes to render a 90 second video clip.

Senior broadcasting student Lina Tawfik said, she was glad the University offered laptops to students but was disappointed by how slow they are for working with video.

“It takes me longer, I feel like, on my Mac, than it did on my older PC, to finish rendering and exporting my videos,” Tawfik said. “And a couple of times it would just crash.”

Some students such as senior graphic design student Andrew Massat say they’d be better off using the money spend on the laptop program on a computer that met his needs.

“Winona State’s laptop program leaves something to be desired,” Massat said. “It’s very limiting in terms of how often it crashes because of a lack of resources.”

Winona State however, doesn’t plan on allowing students to opt-out anytime soon, according to Robin Honken, director of user services for IT.

“The faculty know exactly what hardware and software students have available to them and 90-95 percent of students are satisfied with what we do provide,” said Honken. Limiting possibilities has economic as well as pedagogical reasoning.

By limiting the number of machines offered it is easier to provide support, and it ensures replacement parts or even entire laptops are on hand so students don’t get behind if their laptop breaks, Honken said.

This economy of scale means that the first time a student breaks their laptop they are only assessed a $100 fine instead of the full cost of a replacement. Additionally, much of that nearly $500 per-semester fee goes to support infrastructure like campus Wi-Fi and email systems.

Even with only two different models of laptop available to students at any given time, there are at least seven different laptops in service.

“For every machine we add the support costs increase exponentially,” said Honken.

The university saves money by buying in bulk, but that isn’t possible when buying in small quantities, Honken said.

WSU IT is working with academic departments to provide labs with more specific hardware, but the costs are significant. The engineering department has a lab full of high-end PCs and the mass communication department is currently designing a trans-media lab to teach interactive media.

However, according to Honken at this time there are no plans to provide lab type machines for the trans-media lab.

The graphic design department took the issue into their own hands last year, when they received a grant to purchase two base-model Mac Pros, each valued at more than $3000 apiece.

According to Massat, the Mac Pros are in use pretty much 24/7 for tasks like rendering and encoding.
The new Mac Pros join a handful of aging Mac Pros already there, but the 6-8 machines are still spread thin by the sheer number of students in need of them.

Stolen Painting Was Part of Winona State History

The blank space in Somsen Hall where the stolen piece used to hang.
The blank space in Somsen Hall where the stolen piece used to hang. (photo by Tom Wick)

On January 21 a painting was reported stolen from the Winona State University campus. It had been missing for at least a few weeks or as long as two months, according to the report filed by WSU with the Winona police.

That painting, by Robert Pearson, had hung in the stairwell of Somsen Hall since 1986. The stolen painting is one of nine original oil paintings in a collection of artwork donated by the Watkins family in the 1920s and ‘30s known colloquially as the Watkins collection. Of those nine original oil paintings, all were accounted for until January 21.

The painting was appraised for $15,000 in 1986 (adjusted for inflation, about $31,000 in today’s dollars), but at the time of the theft the university was seeking funds to have the painting and other parts of the collection restored.

To Winona State officials like Ralph Townsend, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and one of the collections unofficial curators, the painting is worth far more and tells an interesting story as part of WSU’s Watkins Art collection.

“The collection is more than the sum of its parts,” said Townsend, “it’s an important part of WSU’s history and example of philanthropy in the 1920s.”

The roughly 600-piece collection was donated over a 10-year period during the 1920s and ’30s by Paul Watkins, the second CEO of Watkins Incorporated. Though the collection was never officially inventoried upon receipt, most accounts agree on the relative number of donated items.

Of the original 600 pieces, Winona State can now only account for about 300. According to Townsend and historical records, most of the pieces are what Townsend refers to as “paper pieces” which include prints, engravings, lithographs and photos, many of which Paul Watkins collected while traveling the world.

Most of these remaining “paper pieces” have been removed from their frames and stored in a filing cabinet based on the recommendations of conservators until they can be properly re-framed. There are plans to display some of them in 2016 if funding is available. While Townsend considers the Watkins collection to be important, spending thousands of dollars per-painting for restorations or even a few hundred to have a piece properly re-framed is difficult politically and monetarily.

Townsend said WSU has also gained a source of advice from the staff at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, particularly MMAM Executive Director Andrew Maus. Maus has been advising the university on how to maintain the collection in a fiscally responsible way.

Maus’ first piece of advice was to create a dedicated art storage facility, so the pieces not on display were moved from the library basement where they were kept for decades to what used to be the map storage room for WSU’s geography department.

“It’s good to see Winona State taking a very proactive role in the collection,” said Maus.

Anyone with information about the stolen painting should contact the Winona police at 507-457-6368 or Winona State Security at 507-457-5555 .