UW News

March 27, 2020

Laptops for takeout or delivery: Student technology program readies for spring quarter

UW News

Narrow boxes, stuffed with bubble wrap and precious cargo, awaited shipping labels. Laptops, zipped up tight in black bags, lay in neat rows. And an assortment of spray cleaners, paper towels and disinfecting wipes collected on a nearby table. This was spring break in the basement of University of Washington’s Kane Hall in the coronavirus age.

Gearing up for an all-online academic quarter, of course, requires first preparing the gear.

With the university’s spring quarter beginning Monday, UW staff and student workers in the Student Technology Loan Program spent the week-long spring break gathering, checking and cleaning some 300 laptops and tablets for distribution – and, for the first time, shipping many of those devices to the homes of UW students across the state and beyond.

The spread of the novel coronavirus prompted the UW in early March to shift to remote instruction, first with the conclusion of winter quarter, then for all of spring. The move has meant changes to many aspects of campus life, from food service and building maintenance to course offerings and the actual methods of teaching and learning.

And for some students, it has changed where and how they get online.

With on-campus computer labs closed and many students having left nearby residence halls to family homes, the Student Technology Loan Program has become the go-to source, nearly all at once, for students’ spring-quarter needs. The program allows any student to borrow a laptop, tablet or other equipment, such as a camera or projector, for free. Paid for through student fees, the program, with an inventory of about 600 laptops and tablets, aims to provide the necessary technology for students who don’t otherwise have access. Students fill out an online form to reserve their device and, under typical circumstances, pick it up at one of three Seattle campus locations, generally during the first week of the quarter, or as needed.

But these are different times.

As winter quarter drew to a close, professional and student staff of the Student Technology Loan Program began thinking about new ways to provide service. Now, as a fully remote spring quarter begins and Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order, with its associated social distancing guidelines, remains in effect, the program has made the following adjustments at the Seattle campus:

  • Every laptop and tablet, in addition to a once-over with keyboard and screen cleaners, has been thoroughly sanitized with bleach wipes and spray cleaner
  • Upon request, 64 laptops and tablets were shipped free of charge to student residential addresses via UPS (plans to ship other tech equipment are in progress)
  • In-person pick-up is scheduled in the Kane Hall lobby during the first week of spring quarter, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. starting Monday, March 30 (and will be evaluated on a daily basis, according to demand)
  • Equipment loans will last the full quarter (no one-week or short-term loans)
  • Additional MacBook Airs and iPad Pros have been ordered to supplant inventory

“We’ve had to change literally every way our program works,” said Phoebe Ng, a UW senior and student lead for the Student Technology Loan Program. “And if we find there’s still more of a need, we know how to do this now.”

Student looks at tablet screen while crouching above rows of bagged laptops.

University of Washington senior Estelle Park checks inventory of laptops that will be distributed for spring quarter through the Student Technology Loan Program.Dennis Wise/U. of Washington

At UW Bothell, the inventory of loanable laptops is expected to grow each week over the first few weeks of the quarter to meet campus demands. UW Bothell Information Technologies is surveying students to assess additional needs and will use that information to match student needs with the appropriate technology. Students at UW Tacoma can check out devices by appointment, all equipment is disinfected before distribution, and any helpdesk requests are handled by live chat, email or phone. A campus survey of new students will determine needs for technology and other services.

Over spring break on the Seattle campus, seven student workers took shifts in the Student Technology Loan Program offices in the Kane Hall basement – one even helped remotely from her home in California – checking inventory, publicizing the new loan system and getting equipment ready. A socially distanced assembly line formed to look up reservations, sanitize devices, tuck into bubble wrap and boxes or zip into cases, and organize into distribution categories: middle of the room for shipments, perimeter for pick-up.

“It’s been a challenging couple of weeks to figure out how to pivot to serve the folks we would normally serve,” said Nate McKee, director of academic technologies. “I’m impressed with and proud of how much effort our team has given to the whole UW community. It’s touching to see the dedication.”

The challenge wasn’t in the number of devices reserved – that wasn’t much different from a typical quarter, Ng explained. Instead, it was the consolidated time frame of booking, shipping and distribution. And that’s when student workers stepped up.

“The students didn’t have to come here over spring break, but everyone who has, it’s been super helpful,” Ng said. “Everyone on this team cares about access to technology, and if we can help with that, we will.”

With one hurdle cleared, there’s still one to go.

“Now we’re thinking about how we’ll get these things back,” Ng said with a smile. “Maybe they can save the box?”


During interviews, photography and filming, UW News was careful to maintain the recommended distance from our interview subjects amid the COVID-19 outbreak.