On the Move

Mobile computing in academia is on the rise, and Dell is leading the way with a variety of solutions

These days, computing at Oklahoma Christian University (OK) is on the move. Students receive laptop computers when they arrive on campus, and, with this technology in tow, essentially can learn anywhere. In the library, for instance, they can surf the Web and access the campus student information network without ever setting foot in a computer lab. In the student center, they can type up term papers over dinner, or in front of the big screen while they watch “The O.C.” And on those warm spring days when Oklahoma City feels a little like Southern California itself, students even can take their computers outside, sprawl on the green, and dive into spreadsheets.

Across the country, other schools are taking this leap as well, embracing mobile computing in droves. Some schools, such as Oklahoma Christian and Alvin Community College (TX), have bought into mobile computing with laptops; others, such as Bentley College (MA), have opted for handheld devices and PocketPCs. The real trailblazers—schools like the University of Toledo (OH)—are doing a little of both, mixing laptops and handhelds with wireless access for truly ubiquitous environments. At a time when computers are just about everywhere, mobility really is the most important benefit that a campus can provide its constituents. The following case studies illustrate this point perfectly.

Laptop Living

The mobility movement at Oklahoma Christian dates back to 2001, when the school made plans to provide every student, faculty member and staff member with a laptop computer. At the time, the initiative was revolutionary; but problems arose with the initial vendor partnership, forcing officials to rethink their strategy as the original laptop contract expired in 2004. After considering laptops from a variety of different vendors, officials selected Dell. The school replaced its previous hardware investment in one fell swoop, purchasing 2,100 brand new Dell Latitude D600 laptops for 1,900 students and 200 faculty and staff.

Today, according to John Hermes, director of computer network services, the new Dell computers are the center of everything that happens on campus. Students pay $360 per semester to use their notebook computers and the school’s wireless infrastructure. In exchange, students receive the machines pre-configured with special settings, as well as all of the necessary software components to run Blackboard, the school’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The laptops include wireless cards, giving students carte blanche to connect to the Internet from pretty much any place they go. Students also receive port replicating devices so they can dock the laptops when they’re working from their dorms.

“No matter how you look at it, our program enables increased productivity and increased communications,” says Hermes, who adds that every freshman class will receive new machines, and that seniors are encouraged to keep the notebooks when they graduate so they have computers as they enter the business world. “This was all part of our effort to enhance the learning experience.”

Take a Loan

Technologists took a similar approach at Alvin Community College (TX) in 2003, only did so on a much smaller scale. There, instead of buying a laptop for each of the college’s 4,000 students, officials at the campus library bought five Dell Latitude C610 laptops, and immediately set up a loaner program. Today, the program is designed for “emergency” checkout, enabling students to sign up for a computer whenever they need a mobile computing solution that their personal computers can’t provide. Each of the laptops is equipped with Microsoft Office software pack, providing all of the applications a student could possibly need.

Unlike other loaner programs that limit notebook use to within a campus library, Alvin students can borrow the computers for up to one week, and are allowed to take the laptops anywhere, on campus or off. To cover insurance, students must pay a $10 fee at checkout – a minimal surcharge, considering it is the only cost students must incur to use the equipment. Laura Castillo, assistant library director, says the program has worked wonders, giving students a mobility option that many of them could not afford previously. She adds that frequently her staff will use one of the laptops, and that the program has been so successful among students that the school is planning to order another five Dell laptops for the program later this year.

“We’ve uncovered something really wonderful with this program,” says Castillo. “For a community college, helping students like this g'es a long way.”

In Their Hands

Laptop-only solutions are one way of tackling the issue of mobility; as officials at Bentley College (MA) can attest, handheld devices are another option that works just as well. The Bentley solution began in the fall of 2004, when Senior Lecturer Mark Frydenberg set out to find a way to spice up his “Introduction to Technology” course in the school’s Computer Information Systems Department. After investigating a number of options, Frydenberg decided he wanted to build his class around handheld solutions, and Frydenberg settled on the Dell Axim for $250 apiece. He was so excited about the purchase that he convinced Bentley officials to chip in $50 per student, bringing the overall cost for students down to a manageable $200.

To help students cover the cost of the devices, Frydenberg eliminated all textbooks for the course and made the Axim the only required class “supply.” He then integrated the Axim devices into the class in a variety of ways. First, Frydenberg connected his handheld to a projector to teach interactive lessons. Then he required students to create Web logs (blogs) formatted for their devices, and taught them how to work in Microsoft Pocket Excel and how to program Visual Basic.Net for Mobile Applications. Toward the end of the semester, Frydenberg asked students to hit the streets of Boston and survey people on various questions, then record responses directly onto their handhelds—a project that went over smashingly with students who were accustomed to assignments that weren’t nearly as interactive.

“It sounds silly, but the handheld really did change the entire nature of this course,” he says. “Using a handheld allowed me to give assignments that would allow students to bring things together in a much different way.”

The handheld effort was not without its challenges. Because the Axim product was a “new toy” for everyone including the instructor, there was a steep learning curve with certain applications on the tool. What’s more, Frydenberg says the device’s small keyboard made it difficult to type more than one or two sentences at a time, a reality that was mitigated with the use of laptops in conjunction with the handheld technology. Finally, Frydenberg had to spend extra time training technical support staffers to teach them how to tackle problems on the new device. This investment paid off—over the course of the semester, no troubleshooting issue went unresolved.

In the Cart

Troubleshooting was what led the University of Toledo (OH) to devise an equally innovative mobility solution. In 2003, school officials were faced with a challenge: Physical space in the school’s College of Business Administration was at a premium, and they needed more desktop labs. To rectify the situation, Joseph Kielczewski, director of college computing, turned to Dell for a solution that hinges on Dell Latitude C800 and C840 laptops equipped with Cisco Aironet 350 wireless cards, and carts that recharge the computers when they’re not in use. The solution essentially comprises a virtual lab, and is known on campus as just that—the Stranahan Hall Virtual Lab.

The original solution consisted of 108 new Latitude notebooks and three carts to store them. A slew of new wireless access points, as well as access points on the carts themselves, guaranteed that each of the laptops would be able to connect to the Internet from anywhere within a half-mile radius of the building. Since then, the school has purchased an additional cartfull of 36 laptops for a total of four carts and 144 notebooks. Today, when students need to use the computers between the hours of 9 a.m. and 10 p.m., they can check out notebooks and take them to a classroom or the mall immediately outside the building. In some cases, Kielczewski says that teachers can check out entire carts of laptops, enabling entire classes to utilize the system.

“This program vastly increases the number of computers that can be in use by students at a given time,” says Kielczewski, who notes that students with their own laptops can connect to the network as well, provided they have the proper wireless cards and configurations. “[Mobility] is a direct and viable alternative to the school’s desktop computers.”

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