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Mobile Computing >> Imagination on the Move

As mobile computing becomes more and more prevalent, a handful of colleges and universities are coming up with the next generation of campus solutions.

It wasn't that long ago that the phrase 'mobile computing' captured the imagination of academic IT administrators everywhere. In the back corners of server rooms, these technologists daydreamed about the joys of computing without the tether of an Ethernet cable. Common fantasies included sending e-mails from a courtyard, listening to achived lectures on portable digital media players, and receiving text-message notifications about a cancelled class. Someday they thought, it will happen ...

That day has come sooner than just about everybody expected. Today, mobile computing is as common on US campuses as pizza deliveries. As it becomes more prevalent, a handful of institutions—UCLA, Georgetown University (DC), Seton Hall University (NJ) and Carnegie Mellon University (PA)—are proving that it’s never too late to innovate and try a new spin on a standard technology.

Wireless with a Kick

If mobile computing were included in Major League Baseball’s new anti-steroid policy, somebody might have to investigate the new wireless network at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. There, with the help of vendor 5G Wireless Communications (, technologists recently set up a solution so powerful that they had to devise a creative way to turn it off during class. The effort began in early 2004, when the class of 2003 gifted the professional school with money to fund a wireless network to cover a courtyard and café. Eric Crane, Network Infrastructure, Security, and Server manager, set out immediately to find the best equipment at the lowest price. Just as he was about to sign up for 60 or 70 access points from a major provider, 5G came in and made an offer that blew him away.

The 5G offer hinged on coverage. The Anderson School boasts five four-story buildings, and 5G was able to cover 85 percent of the space with a G-Force Base Station—one access point on a pole, or mast, atop one of them. To ensure the highest Quality of Service (QoS) for the remaining 15 percent, 5G also installed five additional access points in hard-to-reach places around campus. Neither Crane nor Doug Fox, director of Business Development at 5G, will reveal what the implementation cost, but both say the six access points cost far less than 60 or 70 would have cost from the big guys. Crane adds that the biggest savings has been in maintenance; instead of having to maintain five or six dozen access points, staffers at Anderson Computing and Information Services (ACIS) need only worry about six, freeing them up to extinguish IT fires elsewhere on campus.

“We wanted a way to do mobile computing quickly and affordably,” explains Crane. “For us, the answer was wireless-enabling the campus with a solution that made sense.”

To keep students focused during class, technologists installed low-power access points in classrooms at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, and gave them the same name as the outside network. They fired up the access points, but left them unconnected to the network at large, creating a “dead zone” of connectivity inside each classroom. A key part of the school’s mobile computing plan is about limiting mobility in certain spots.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in enabling mobile computing at Anderson has been keeping it under control. Once the access points went live, faculty members requested that ACIS disable wireless in their classrooms to ensure that students pay attention during lectures. Crane and his staff spent weeks figuring out how to do this; finally, a team of technologists from 5G suggested a brilliant idea to keep students focused. First, the technologists installed low-power access points in each of the school’s 14 classrooms. Next, they gave these access points the same name as the outside network. Finally, with the help of ACIS, the technologists fired up the access points, but left them unconnected to the network at large, essentially creating a “dead zone” of connectivity inside each classroom.

Today, the system works by befuddling student operating systems. When students bring their laptops to class, their computers automatically attempt to connect to the strongest wireless signal. This signal, however, is not actually connected to the Internet at all—in the immediate vicinity of the classroom, it g'es nowhere. And unless students have sophisticated hacker-type tools, there’s virtually no way for them to reconfigure their wireless cards to pick up other, weaker signals from this classroom environment. As soon as they leave the classroom, however, the dead zone signal disappears, and students can connect to the regular wireless network without a problem. “It’s ironic, but a key part of our mobile computing plan is this technology to limit mobility in certain spots,” says Crane. “Lucky for us, the whole thing works great.”

Mobility of Content

Officials at Georgetown University have taken a different approach to mobile computing; at Georgetown, efforts focus on the mobility of information and incorporating technology such as podcasting and text messaging. Through a new, homegrown content management system named Explore, technologists have put content “in motion” by liberating it from static repositories such as Web pages, and allowing it to flourish in a more fluid and flexible database. According to Robert Michael Murray,director of Technology Strategy and Development, the approach has worked wonders, and the university is getting more life out of content than ever before. What’s more, students and other constituents have become truly mobile, wirelessly accessing and exchanging information with the network, both on campus and off.

The Explore endeavor began in 2001, when Murray and other Georgetown officials grew weary of seeing useful content waste away on Web pages that nobody visited. Murray and University Webmaster Piet Niederhausen put together a team to draw up a concept for a Web-based database that would allow for files of many shapes and sizes, in almost every conceivable file language. Rather than tie these files to individual objects, however, the database was designed to store them freely, and utilize eXtensible Markup Language (XML) to deliver them on demand in real time, to just about any kind of device, in virtually any form or format a user requested. Last year, after rigorous testing and a variety of trials, the content management system went live to rave reviews from Georgetown students and faculty users alike.

“With wireless networks virtually everywhere, we didn’t doubt that users would engage in mobile computing,” says Murray. “For us, the missing piece was making sure our content was as mobile as the technology itself; making sure we could send any piece [of content] to any device in any place at any time.”

One way students hope to take advantage of this system is by using iPods and other digital media players to access archived audio files of lectures and other events. Murray says that a small group of professors are looking into the possibility of recording lectures and making them available for download through the Explore database. Recently, these capabilities were extended to another genre of audio content: archived installments of the Georgetown University Forum, a periodic radio program that highlights faculty research. Today, students and other campus users can access these files within their Web browsers, download them to computers in the normal fashion, or access them through an XML feed for “podcasting” on digital media players or MP3-enabled cellular phones.

Georgetown officials also have tweaked the new system to modernize the university’s approach to emergency preparedness. In the past, the school notified students of campus closures via flyers, or word-of-mouth. Now, thanks to Explore, campus status changes are syndicated across the Georgetown Web site to high-traffic Web pages. Murray explains that his office has optimized the ability to manage these notifications from a Blackberry device. As a result, the updates can be changed from anywhere in the world. Later this year, he adds, the next steps of the project will allow emergency messages to be delivered via Short Message Service (SMS) on the campus cable network, fully utilizing the open-framework architecture of Explore.

Strategizing Mobility

After pilot projects in mobile computing from 1995 to 1997, Seton Hall University rolled out a full-scale laptop program in 1998. The effort, known formally as the Mobile Computing Program, was a standard- fare laptop initiative: Starting that year, all freshmen were required to have a portable PC. The school purchased IBM ( ThinkPad laptops and leased them to students at a discount. To counterbalance the expense for students at need, Seton Hall officials increased the pool of financial aid and gave priority to those who qualified. By 2001, every student on campus went through the program and bought a new laptop. Coupled with the school’s growing wireless network, the laptops facilitated computing from just about anywhere on the school’s South Orange campus. On the surface, everything was great.

Behind the scenes, however, CIO Stephen Landry says that technology officials knew they had to take additional steps to ensure that students used the laptops as part of their everyday experiences. The first approach to this strategic enforcement of mobile computing was what Landry calls “curricular integration,” an effort to support and encourage faculty to integrate the use of laptops in the curriculum. At the center of this endeavor is the Teaching, Learning, and Technology (TLT) Center, a multi-disciplinary facility that financially motivates educators to build entire lessons around laptops: The center doles out a total of $250,000 in multi-year grants to academic departments willing to redesign core courses around mobile technology. Paul Fisher, the center’s director, says the grants are some of the most sought-after dollars on campus today.


At Georgetown, a database was designed to store content freely, and utilize XML to deliver it on demand in real time, to just about any kind of device, in virtually any form or format a user requested. For Georgetown, the missing mobile computing piece was making sure that content was as mobile as the technology itself.

“The whole idea was to inspire our faculty and department heads to use mobile technology to improve student learning,” says Fisher, who notes that the center also rewards Faculty Innovation Grants of up to $5,000, for individual educators who embrace mobility. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t just handing out an expensive word processor.”

Faculty-centered incentives weren’t Seton Hall’s only approach to solidifying mobile computing on campus: Landry and his colleagues launched an internal marketing effort aimed at students, too. For starters, through a special laptop group within the IT department, the university set up a number of support services such as maintenance and repair. Next, the school mandated that all freshmen take a skills class called “University Life” in their first semester on campus. While this class g'es over basics such as studying effectively and saying no to drugs, it also includes several hours of tutorials on how to use the ThinkPads, how to connect to the wireless network, and how to keep anti-virus software up-to-date. Though most students term the class “cheesy,” Landry says it works wonders, nearly eliminating help desk requests from first-time users.

The final leg of the strategy to ensure the success of Seton Hall’s mobile computing effort is a system of checks and balances dubbed the Mobile Computing Assessment Program. The program, designed in 1998 to provide prompt feedback to the planning team, consists of an annual survey administered to a random sample of undergrads at the school. Survey items and their analysis are managed by a team of faculty members, administrators, and technologists. After every survey, the team shares results with the campus community and the larger educational community, via conferences and publications. Clearly, something’s working: by the 2003 survey, 89 percent of 275 responding students reported that they were “satisfied or very satisfied” with the use of mobile IT in their courses.

Smarter Smartphones

Technologists have seen the future of mobile computing at Carnegie Mellon University, and that future revolves around smartphones that actually are smart. You know the smartphone: any handheld device that integrates personal information management and mobile phone capabilities. At CMU, however, researchers under the leadership of Professor Asim Smailagic have developed a mobile, wearable system that is one part PDA, one part cell phone, and one part virtual secretary—it can screen calls and send them to voicemail if the user is in the middle of a class or important meeting. The system, dubbed SenSay (for “sen”sing and “say”ing), is currently in pilot phase at the university’s Pittsburgh campus, and could be implemented on a broader basis as soon as next year.

At Carnegie Mellon University, researchers have developed a mobile, wearable system that is one part PDA, one part cell phone, and one part virtual secretary. By “sensing” the wearer’s environment and situation— say, if the user is in the middle of a class or important meeting—it can screen calls and send them to voicemail.

Smailagic bills the portable system as a “context-aware” mobile phone. It consists of an ordinary mobile phone, a sensor box mounted on a user’s hip, and voice and ambient microphones mounted somewhere near the user’s neck. The microphones record sounds in the user’s environment (including the user’s own voice), and software in the sensor box analyzes the data to determine what kind of situation the user is in. After comparing this data with a certain set of rules, the software decides what to do with the call. If, for instance, the program determines that the user is in a lecture or meeting, all incoming calls are sent immediately to voicemail. If, on the other hand, the program determines that a user is in the middle of a conversation, calls ring through in silent mode, vibrating to notify the user that someone’s on the line.

smart phones are smarter than elsewhere:
the 'SenSay devices screen calls and even clam up during classes.

“The way we see it, this research takes mobile computing to the next level,” says Smailagic, who predicts the system will retail for $200 when it hits the general market. “Instead of having to worry about interrupting students in a particular environment, the phone d'es all of the thinking for them.”

Down the road, Smailagic hopes to network SenSay systems into the school’s wireless network, and create a plug-in application that expands the context for these context-aware tools. Specifically, researchers are working on ways to enable SenSay units to interface with user course schedules and Global Positioning System (GPS) maps of campus. Under this expanded approach, the system will rely even less on its microphone inputs; if a student is sitting in a lecture hall, or his course schedule indicates that he is in a lecture, the phone system will assume the student is busy and send calls to voicemail. While SenSay d'esn’t account for a user’s free will, it certainly would enable responsible students who don’t skip class to focus on learning. In the end, at least in higher education, that’s what mobile computing is all about.

Step up to Smart Podia

One of the largest private institutions in the nation, New York University is currently innovating through mobility. Case in point: the school’s “smart podia,” a variety of pedestals that enable professors to access and utilize lecture materials from any folder on the campus network.

The devices, which are set up in only certain classrooms, essentially are stationary networked computers equipped with all of the latest in presentation technology. From them, professors and lecturers can log into Web-based storage folders, access notes, PowerPoint slides, or other support materials, and control the flow of a presentation with the click of a button. Because the podia are connected to the campus network, they eliminate the need for users to lug laptops or note folders to class.

Marilyn McMillan, associate provost and chief information technology officer, says the podia are amalgamations of products from a number of different vendors, and notes that on top of standard wireless computing, they are one way in which NYU utilizes mobility to improve the life of its constituents. “[The podia] certainly make everyone’s lives easier,” she says. “When it comes to mobility, having a certain number of worthwhile technologies g'es a long way.”

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