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Jonathan Baptista, Marc Oehlman and Arlene Krebs of California State University, Monterey Bay created TechRent, a unique program that rents technology to students at affordable prices.

Robert Houser

TechRent Makes Technology Afforable for Students

Cal State Monterey Bay makes technology affordable to students through a trend-setting rental store.

posted May 17, 2011  |  Appears in the June/July 2011 issue of EdTech Magazine.

Cal State Monterey Bay makes technology affordable to students through a trend-setting rental store.

For sophomore Kari Chadwell, a rental program at California State University, Monterey Bay called TechRent has opened once-closed educational doors. Fellow student Andrew Gladue credits the program with improving his grades. And professors such as Charlie Wallace use it to raise academic expectations at the Seaside, Calif., institution.

More than a traditional equipment check-out service, TechRent is an innovative program that makes technology affordable for CSUMB's 4,800 students. TechRent offers flexible terms that let students keep devices for a day, week, month or semester. Students may even choose to purchase a rented device by applying their rental fees toward the item's cost.

Although moderating student expenses is a perennial goal at colleges and universities, it's particularly relevant on a campus where about half of those enrolled are first-generation college students and 75 percent are on financial aid.

Kathryn Cruz-Uribe, CSUMB's provost and vice president for academic affairs, says access to technology through TechRent contributes heavily to classroom innovation. "Knowing students can rent technology affordably provides faculty with the freedom to experiment," she says.

Wallace, a multimedia instructor, is a case in point. Once high-definition Kodak Zi8 pocket video cameras became available via TechRent, he began requiring students to create instructional videos in HD. "Before, I couldn't require HD," Wallace says.

Wallace also was able to upgrade his teaching methodology to focus more on HD, he adds. This ensures that students master the various HD standards and protocols required for producing quality images and sound. As a result, Wallace sets higher academic expectations. "Previously, I had to allow for whatever type of camera students could get their hands on," he says.

Breaking the Mold

TechRent (http://csumb.edu/techrent) is the brainchild of Arlene Krebs, founder and director of CSUMB's Wireless Education & Technology Center (WeTEC). Krebs answered a call for textbook rental grant applications from the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) with her "outside-of-the-box" TechRent concept.

When the Education Department awarded nearly $300,000 for the program in October 2009, Krebs, who also serves as TechRent's director, tapped CSUMB staff members Marc Oehlman and Jonathan Baptista to form a three-person management team.

Oehlman is CSUMB's associate director for the Center for Academic Technologies, where he is responsible for faculty and staff development. For TechRent, Oehlman serves as project coordinator and faculty champion.

Baptista is WeTEC's IT specialist. He manages IT for TechRent and serves as de facto store manager and support guru. His duties include running the help desk, demonstrating TechRent's gear in classrooms, assisting faculty with equipment setup, and training TechRent's four student workers to do all of these tasks and operate the store.

Breaking Ground

Eager to put the grant to work right away, the trio targeted the start of the following semester – just three months away – for opening. Then they began building and promoting the TechRent concept from the ground up. "Unlike a bookstore unit, where much of the infrastructure already exists, we had to create TechRent's back office as well as its front end," Krebs recalls.

Startup chores ranged from coordinating with multiple campus departments, such as student affairs, academic affairs, finance and administration, to addressing retail-related issues, such as getting Baptista bonded to allow the store to accept cash as well as credit cards, Krebs says.

In addition, the team partnered with CSUMB's academic affairs office to hammer out a library-inspired lending model, which ties fees for late or unreturned items to a student's academic records. And anything unreturned for three days beyond the rental period is reported to the university's police department.

"However, after nearly 700 rentals, we haven't lost a single item," Krebs points out.

The team also worked to assemble the store's inventory, ensuring that all technologies complied with Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to fulfill broader institutional goals. (Section 508 covers information technology accessibility standards for people with disabilities.)

After some initial brainstorming and preliminary student surveys, Oehlman gathered faculty input. He learned that student response devices, or clickers, topped the faculty's pain-points list as expensive for students to buy, he says. Subsequently, clickers became the store's early cornerstone item.

Concurrently, the team tapped manufacturers for equipment loans and onsite demos. "Involving [manufacturers] is a key component to our store's success," says Krebs.

Manufacturers offer a host of adjunct services, such as demonstrating technologies to students and faculty, supplying donated items and lending TechRent new equipment for piloting rental feasibility, says Krebs.

Next, Baptista headed up make and model selection, focusing on usability, durability and economy. "For example, we settled on the Kodak HD cam because the USB connector was more substantial than other options," he says.

A Store Is Born

When TechRent officially opened for business in January 2010, inventory included the Kodak cams, Wacom Bamboo touch pads, student response devices and smart pens. That semester, the store completed 165 rentals.

Before the start of the 2010 fall semester, TechRent responded to initial feedback by adding tablet computers and a Canon EOS Rebel DSLR still camera to the store's mix. Rentals climbed 63 percent to 269 for the semester.

Not yet satisfied with the product mix, TechRent continued researching new products while also providing faculty development opportunities. "Among other things, we created clicker co-ops [for faculty] to share ideas and encourage broader adoption," Oehlman says. "And to encourage the use of imagery and rich media, we began talking to professors about e-portfolios."

By January 2011, the quantity of existing TechRent items had increased to meet the identified needs on campus.

Types of equipment also expanded to include an IOGEAR Phaser Presenter, a Texas Instruments BA II Plus business calculator, two Texas Instruments TI-30XS scientific calculators, a 3M Pocket Projector and an advanced reading/writing software package for struggling students. Additionally, more than a dozen notebook computers were obtained and outfitted with software tools to mirror those in campus computer labs.

Through March 15 (the most recent statistics available), rentals rivaled the entire fall semester, at 246. Since TechRent opened, rentals have totaled 680 and generated $14,295 in revenues.

Enthusiastic Reception

Most important, both students and faculty report positive experiences with TechRent.

In Chadwell's case, TechRent saved her from dropping Wallace's multi-media course. "I wouldn't have had the money to purchase an HD camera," says the sophomore, who is majoring in communication design. "TechRent allowed me to stay in the class, which definitely furthered my knowledge and gave me skills for the future."

For another course, Chadwell rented a notebook loaded with the Adobe Creative Suite 5 software she needed to complete an assignment. The only other avenue, an on-campus machine, was impractical. Chadwell works several jobs to pay for her education, so she does her homework late at night when the campus is closed.

Junior Gladue leveraged TechRent to innovate, helping his group project win approval from fellow students and a better grade from his professor.

Gladue's group rented an HD camera to create a short film. Then they scattered clips throughout an otherwise-staid business presentation "making everyone in the class laugh," the business administration major says. "Yet it only took two hours of our time to shoot and edit."

In Kinesiology, lecturer Barbara Sayad can now pose questions around sexual attitudes and behaviors in her human sexuality courses because students are able to respond anonymously with clickers.

"Without clickers, I'd never be able to collect and display information about sensitive topics such as STIs [sexually transmitted infections]," she says.

In addition, the immediate response creates powerful teachable moments, Sayad adds. "Clickers definitely help me be a better instructor," she says.

Professors like Wallace look forward to the curricular possibilities offered by any other new gear TechRent markets in the future, including tablets. "They are a real game-changer," he notes.

$66,575
The amount of money TechRent saved students in a little over one year by allowing them to rent mobile technologies instead of buying

SOURCE: California State University, Monterey Bay

To continue all these positive developments, the TechRent management team plans to develop a sustainability path for the store. Options range from continuing to administer TechRent as an IT department function to making it a student organization, run with staff guidance similar to a student newspaper.

TechRent may even expand to include other higher education institutions in the region, a setup in which CSUMB operates the store with rental pick-up and drop-off available at participating locations.

Regardless, Krebs calls TechRent's success palpable. "We've definitely established another kind of resource with the potential to become as important as a library and a bookstore," she says.

Getting It Right

To build a successful TechRent program of your own, take some cues from California State University, Monterey Bay.

Go beyond renting. "Have the technical expertise on hand to pick students' brains about what they really need," suggests Jonathan Baptista, IT specialist for TechRent. "Then determine how you can meet needs with existing rental equipment."

Get your hands dirty. "Performing minor repairs such as soldering connectors and replacing lenses on pocket HD cams saves a lot of money," Baptista notes.

Make a special pitch to the parents. After talking to parents during CSUMB student orientation, semester-long rentals of notebooks soared. "Once they learned about the program, parents expressed relief that they could rent a computer for only $125 for a semester," Baptista says.

Be flexible. Technology needs change. "For example, one semester everyone may want HD cams and the next it's notebook computers," Baptista recalls.

Make it a learning environment. At TechRent, students learn soft skills, from providing technical support to writing the store's policy and procedures manual. "One student even developed programming scripts to accelerate TechRent's website," Baptista says.

Survey, survey, survey. Tightly align the college's rental offerings to current needs and anticipate future trends by regularly surveying students and faculty.

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