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A New Kind of Academic Freedom

Mix the proliferation of portable computing devices on campus with the growth of wireless networks, and you have a small revolution in learning taking place at colleges and universities. Suddenly, mobile computing is a fact of life all over campuses.

Nearly every college or university runs some sort of wireless network, at least to select points like the library and student center, but that’s just part of the mobility picture. Add in the prevalence of student laptops, the growth of tablet PCs, the popularity of wireless PDAs and other handheld devices, and of course mobile phones. Combine that with the latest scramble of IT administrators in higher education to upgrade to faster and more pervasive wireless networks across campuses, and major changes in how and where students learn are in the works.

Examples of advances in mobile computing are all over. At Dartmouth College, for example, students can use wireless devices to connect to the network virtually anywhere, including playing fields, parts of town, and yes, even the cemetery (a popular study area). Wireless computing is so popular and pervasive there that cell phones use is actually down. And a new Voice over IP (VoIP) initiative at the college is moving students away from traditional phones in favor of computer devices and the Internet for local and long-distance calls.

At the University of Minnesota at Crookston (UMC), where students and faculty have been issued laptops at enrollment for over 10 years, wireless is more and more in the works – especially as throughput speeds increase. The effect will be to un-tether laptop-toting students in a technological leap like the one that mandated notebook computers years ago.

At the University of Minnesota at Crookston (UMC), where students and faculty have been issued laptops at enrollment for over 10 years, wireless is more and more in the works – especially as throughput speeds increase.

And at Carnegie Mellon University, also a mobile computing leader with its pre-802.11 "Wireless Andrew" network since 1994, the school is now looking to upgrade its wireless network to the newer, faster 802.11g wireless standard. In doing so, it will triple its wireless access points to nearly 2,000 spots across the campus.

In short, the convergence of wireless networks and portable computing devices is making college campuses a hotbed for mobile computing. For students, faculty and staff, the ability to connect anytime, anywhere is more and more a reality – and more and more compelling.

Wireless Drives Mobile Devices

A mobile campus needs a wireless network to make it work, obviously, and the more pervasive the wireless signal, the better. The ripple effects of a seamless wireless network that allows students and faculty to connect anywhere on campus can be interesting. At Dartmouth, having a total wireless overlay drives up laptop acquisition, according to Larry Levine, Dartmouth’s director of computing. Almost anyone who buys a computer now at Dartmouth purchases a laptop rather than a desktop model, he says—including 96 percent of the latest class to enroll. Also, "most of the time, faculty members elect to get a laptop" rather than desktop machine, because the wireless network helps them see the value in mobile computing.

With wireless everywhere and laptops offering better power management capabilities that free them from a power outlet for long periods as well, Levine says, "students are using their laptops in all kinds of locations… It’s definitely a trend. Why bother to plug in?"

"Anywhere" Computing Brings Challenges

The latest push in mobile computing also brings challenges. Encouraging students to use mobile devices—or even issuing them outright, as the University of Minnesota has done for years—is a start, but pervasive wireless is the new holy grail. UMC began providing laptops to all students in 1993, making it the first "laptop campus" in the country. The challenge now is to empower all those students and staff with portable computers by making more and more of the campus wireless.

UMC currently has selective wireless access—dorms and some classrooms, for example—using the 802.11b standard. Now, "802.11g is in the works," according to Dan Lim, assistant professor and information technology management director at the school. "Cost is an issue too, [but] we are phasing in wireless."

A big challenge with deploying and maintaining wireless networks is rapidly changing standards that affect speed. Upgrading a network can be costly, with hundreds or thousands of access points across even a small campus. At Dartmouth, for example, the campus offers wireless access virtually anywhere through a network overlay that uses the 802.11b standard. Levine says that the school, a comparatively small space, started with 476 access points and maintains over 600 now. Dartmouth started its wireless project "in earnest" in October 2000, Levine says—"and you’re never really done." To move to offering the faster 802.11g, along with backward compatibility to a and b as well, means the school will now have to upgrade its network.

Offering enough wireless access points to keep the network relatively pervasive is challenging—and gets more so as bandwidth increases, since faster wireless speeds require a greater concentration of access points. Carnegie Mellon currently maintains roughly 700 access points across 105 acres and four million square feet of interior space. In order to move to a higher-bandwidth design like 802.11g, they’ll need to triple the number of access points to perhaps 2,000. Forget about upgrading—simply managing that shear number of access points can be a challenge.

"Wireless is a very distributed type of network, with equipment in closets, ceilings, hallways," explains Chuck Bartel, Carnegie Mellon’s director of network services, as well as project director for the school’s Wireless Andrew initiative. "Managing a 2,000-device network spread out across 4 million square feet and close to 65 buildings—that starts to become a bit more difficult."

"Wireless is a very distributed type of network, with equipment in closets, ceilings, hallways..."

Potential in PDAs

Handheld devices like PDAs represent untapped potential on many campuses. Some IT administrators say that students don’t seem to use wireless PDAs much, favoring a single wireless device—the laptop—instead. On other campuses, like the University of South Dakota (see sidebar), PDAs are actively encouraged.

Technology "is just getting smaller and more mobile all the time," says Peg Schultz, the director of instructional and client services at Pomona College outside L.A.—and as that happens, devices become more and more popular with students. "We’re going to probably have to think of PDA access as we migrate to [Microsoft] Exchange 2003. We’re [seeing] more PDAs that are wireless—people wanting to pick up e-mail or surf. As security improves, we’ll find many more people jumping on the bandwagon."

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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