Carol Biliczky

The University of Akron plans to loan tablet computers to about 500 of its athletes within a year — and eventually may ensure that all students have them.

The university rolled out the pilot program last spring to about 30 men’s and women’s basketball players and will add students in other major sports including football over the next year.

Jim Sage, UA vice president for information technology, said university officials see this as a way to help students keep up with their schoolwork while giving them easy access to material their coaches want to share, such as playbooks and game film.

“Being a Division 1 student-athlete is a real challenge given the practice and traveling time demands,” Sage said.

UA is following a select number of other schools with similar programs that include the University of Maryland, Stanford University, Fresno State and as of last year, Ohio State.

The Ohio school scrapped its 11-year practice of loaning laptop computers to athletes in favor of the smaller one-piece tablet computers. Ohio State is in the process of loaning tablets to about 1,100 students over the next 18 months.

UA launched its program quietly last winter at the urging of basketball coach Keith Dambrot, who sees tablets as a “relatively inexpensive investment to help athletes.”

“This will give us some other things that other people don’t have,” when it comes to recruiting, he said. “You’re showing people you’re putting money into academics. It’s the right thing to do.”

University officials say athletes face time crunches that other students may not face.

For instance, basketball players compete in at least 30 regular season games and may have as many as 20 hours a week of team practice. They go to almost all of their games on buses, sometimes spending several hours getting to their venue and then home again.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association requires athletes to make regular progress toward degrees, which means they must be enrolled full time and must pass their courses.

Tutors already are on hand to help many student-athletes with their school work at UA. Now tablets help them to make the most of down time at sporting events, said Anne Jorgensen, associate athletic director for student-athlete academic services.

“We can put on the programs that they need and they have an ability to research while they’re on the road,” she said. “It works like a charm. We think they’re paying more attention to getting things done in a timely manner.”

The tablets have replaced the personal computers that some students took on the road. About six of the women’s basketball players and about eight of the males brought their own PCs, she said.

However the program is so new that UA doesn’t know if students are doing better academically, Jorgensen said. Nor does the university have a magic wand to pay for the tablets.

So far, UA has picked up the cost for the tablets. Like Ohio State, UA paid for the first round of tablets — about $15,000 for the 30 men’s and women’s basketball players, Sage, the vice president, said.

UA since has identified a “couple of donors” to pay for the rest of the student-athlete tablets, Sage said. He declined to identify the donors because the deal has not been sealed.

The university would like to extend the program to the rest of campus but that would be daunting given that tablets cost about $500 each and there are almost 29,000 students.

But the university may be able to strike an agreement in which a supplier gives students a better deal than they would get on their own.

If the program proves successful with the student-athletes, that may happen.

“We concluded that if we could help address time demands for student-athletes, lessons learned could be applied to all of our students, Sage said.

The student-athletes will have to turn in the tablets when they leave the university, just like they do sports equipment, he said.

Contact Carol Biliczky at cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3729.