A New Kind of Academic Freedom

At UMC, Lim is hoping for a better convergence of cell phones and PDAs "The cell phone has a great potential because it’s so convenient and everyone has [one]," he says. But it has a ways to go to be a useful learning device, he says. "If it combines some PDA capabilities… that will really enhance it as a communication and learning tool." So far, he hasn’t seen a device that effectively integrates functions of the PDA and phone. "Right now, you have either a good phone or a good PDA, not both."

The other holdup in using that sort of handheld wireless device for learning is software. "Of course, until we create some compelling software which isn’t constrained by that little screen," Lim points out, "or until we have some learning platforms," the device won’t really be effective for learning, at least.

Lim also says that more challenging than the technologies themselves is changing the mindset of faculty, staff and administration to embrace new ideas in IT."The faculty will always be a generation behind our students," Lim says candidly. The faculty and staff’s willingness (or unwillingness) to embrace a new technology "affects how they teach, and how they design learning programs."

In order for a university to truly embrace a new model like mobile computing, Lim says, "we’ve got to invest in training our teachers, rather than just investing in the infrastructure. Training is often like an afterthought – you can end up with hundreds of laptops sitting around, with students and teachers not using them."

"Training is often like an afterthought – you can end up with hundreds of laptops sitting around, with students and teachers not using them."

Wireless Still Getting Up to Speed

The relatively slow speed of the average wireless network compared to wired broadband often makes it a companion technology to wired rather than a replacement. At Pomona, Schultz says, "We certainly wouldn’t want to use [wireless] full-time. We [hard]wire all of our buildings and our dorms. We aren’t suggesting that people go completely wireless, but it’s a nice companion. If you need speed, it just isn’t there."

Its current speeds limit the usefulness of wireless, agrees Lim. With the current standard of 802.11b deployed on his campus, he says most students get just one or two Mbps throughput. "Naturally, that’s not fast enough for our students." A wireless technology’s maximum speed is seldom what’s actually delivered. "So when we upgrade to 11g, which is five times faster, [students] may not get 50-some megabits per second, they’ll get five to ten megabits per second."

At Carnegie Mellon, which has had complete wireless coverage since 1998 based on the 802.11b standard, Bartel says that the university is looking at next-generation wireless technology for speed reasons, and experimenting with 802.11a and g standards. "[802.11b] is now becoming a bit slow by today’s standards."

Proximity-Aware Devices

With hundreds or thousands of wireless access points in place and identified to a central network, proximity-aware devices become a possibility. Such a device can locate the carrier – such as a student or faculty carrying a PDA or cell phone. At Carnegie Mellon, that means that software can enable students to selectively let others know their location, find out where friends are, locate a meeting or lecture, and so forth. Bartel gives examples of using such software to schedule lunch or a study group with others based on their proximity, or quickly plan a meeting based on where the members are at a given moment.

Wireless Voice Technologies

An initiative at Dartmouth that has gotten lots of attention is the college’s move to voice over IP (VoIP) technology for telephone calls. The campus already had made long distance calls from campus free, finding that was cheaper than administering a complex billing system. Now, Levine says, "all new buildings have voice over IP for phones" instead of traditional phones.

Among other things, voice over IP technology makes any computing device a phone—a notebook computer or PDA, notably. A wireless laptop running a small software application needs only a headset to become a wireless Internet telephone—usable anywhere that he laptop can connect to the network. The move to VoIP opens new possibilities, Levine points out, since voice, video and data can now converge, allowing the user to mix voice with video and data, share party line conversations on the fly, and much more. "It really is a phone," he says. "You can call a campus extension or an outside line."

With campuses ready to experiment further with mobile devices and wireless networks, and vendors eager to work with them to test out new products, mobile computing is ripe for growth. Campuses like Dartmouth, the University of Minnesota, and Carnegie Mellon represent the cutting edge, but others won’t be far behind.

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