Cleveland Is Hot

Cleveland Rocks! The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—Rock Hall— is Cleveland’s new icon and edifice, replacing the steel mills that once reflected this city’s commerce and identity.

But at University Circle, some 110 blocks east of downtown Cleveland and Rock Hall, there is signal in the air. With the September launch of the OneCleveland project, this midwestern port city is now home to the world’s largest hotspot for free, public WiFi.

OneCleveland is a collaborative effort of seven Cleveland organizations, including Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University, Cuyahoga Community College, and the Cleveland metropolitan school district. In the offing is a public, one-gigabyte network that will “serve more than 100 education, cultural, research, government and healthcare non-profit organizations in Northeast Ohio that are exploring using OneCleveland’s services.”

At present, the operating and symbolic center of OneCleveland is University Circle, home to Case Western Reserve University, Severance Hall and the Cleveland orchestra, and many of the city’s museums. The 550-acre University Circle area went wireless early in September. Dell Klingensmith, interim executive director of OneCleveland, says that the project “intend[s] to extend wireless infrastructure services everywhere that OneCleveland touches.” In time, Cleveland and the extended metropolitan area could become one huge, seamless hotspot.

For Case Western Reserve University and the large number of residential, “technology-intensive” four-year colleges and universities that do not have required buy programs, going wireless has helped to move undergraduates from desktops to notebooks. Admittedly, notebooks now seem cheap: basic laptop computers are widely available for less than $1,000. But early if anecdotal evidence suggest that the wireless network influenced the decision that many Case Western Reserve University students made this fall about the kind of computer—desktop or notebook—they bought for college.

Cutting the digital cord is a wonderful thing. Once you’ve experienced the convenience of wireless you may never be willing to return to the cable that binds.

Admittedly, I am—or have become—a partisan. In the interests of full disclosure, I should report that I’m spending part of this academic year in Cleveland, working on some projects at Case Western Reserve University. However, were I simply passing through as opposed to spending time, I believe I would still be impressed by what’s been done and the aspirations to do more.

But let’s look beyond the initial excitement about Cleveland’s movement towards universal, free WiFi. The early experience of consumers, corporations, and colleges suggests that wireless, like all new technologies, presents a Pandora’s box of expectations, challenges, and opportunities.

For entering freshmen or for Executive MBA students, wireless on campus (and in the classroom) is qualitatively different than WiFi at home or on the job. Among other things, wireless may raise student expectations about the role of technology in the classroom, especially among the so-called MTV generation of undergraduates.

Some faculty at wireless campuses are beginning to complain about the “sea of screens” that dominate their classes: are students taking notes, searching for content related to class discussion, doing e-mail, or simply wandering in Cyberspace during a dull lecture? Are the undergraduates bored? Are the law students and MBAs searching the Web for content (court rulings, BusinessWeek articles) to enhance class discussions or to ambush their peers and the prof?

Planning for wireless involves the obvious conversations about costs and content. Controlling access and network security are understandably major concerns. Curricular consequences remain largely unknown.

For me, however, the most interesting student issues involve collaboration and compelling convenience.

Over the past two decades, we’ve all seen students gather around the computer. One works the keyboard as the others talk or watch. But what happens when small groups of students work together, each with an untethered notebook computer? D'es the nature of collaboration change? Do students engage in a kind of parallel processing, unbundling the task as each brings new perspectives, informed by new information found from different parts of the Web? D'es technology-enhanced collaboration bring together more parts for a larger (or better) gestalt?

While we know that wireless offers incredible convenience, we should also ask if that convenience is compelling. How do we assess the benefit of investment in wireless, a larger, more encompassing measure than the standard ROI that focuses on financials. For example, d'es wireless provide more (or better) access? If so, for which categories of users? And how should we measure access: Number and kind of users? Or time online?

These are more than just “academic” questions. The continuing campus conversations about IT strategy require real data—real evidence—that these investments generate significant, measurable benefits.

The OneCleveland and Case Western Reserve University wireless initiatives provide an important opportunity—for the campus community and for the Cleveland community—to experience and to monitor the impact and benefits of expanded access and expansive wireless. It will be very interesting to watch Cleveland get hot.

[Editor’s note: Casey Green will co-anchor a special Ahead of the Curve broadcast session, “An Open Discussion About Open Source” from the Syllabus fall2003 conference in Cambridge, Mass. on December 8. For updates, visit www.syllabus.com.]

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