The Road to 24/7: Cell Phones at Baruch College

Linda L. Briggs

Wireless and mobile technologies are now everywhere, and 24/7 computing is as pervasive a term as the actual capability promises to be. Sometimes, in fact, the push toward mobile technologies can seem overwhelming. But every wireless project d'esn’t have to involve redesigning the network and investing in mega-dollars worth of hardware and software. Nor d'es every project need to extend across the entire campus and involve every student. Rather, small pilots can pave the way for the biggest projects and can serve as a test ground for larger rollouts.

Instead of fighting student cell phone use, some schools are embracing it. At Baruch College in New York City (one of 10 senior colleges of The City University of New York), CIO Arthur Downing is working with Rave Wireless to supply students with cell-phone-accessible applications for academic-oriented uses.

Downing explains that although the school’s 15,000 students have good access to computers on campus and wireless coverage is fairly pervasive, students wanted more. “They want to check things quickly,” he explains. “Rather than [adding more computer] labs and kiosks, we wanted an easier way to get our Web-based applications to them.”

A Baruch survey conducted before the pilot program revealed that 90 percent of students carried cell phones with them everywhere. So in a pilot program last fall (which will result in a campus-wide rollout of the program in fall 2006), Baruch began offering a growing variety of Web-based applications that can deliver information to students via cell phone. The pilot involved 100 students; some 500 are currently signed up, and Downing hopes to have three-quarters of the Baruch student body on board when the program g'es live in the fall.

“We don’t have a wealthy student body,” Downing says, and most students don’t carry a laptop or a PDA. And since all Baruch’s students commute, spending less time on campus as conventional students, there’s little time to connect with others or take advantage of university services. “So, right now anyway, our [cell phone] applications are meant to help them use their time between classes most efficiently,” Downing says. Among other things, he explains, “We’re trying to build a sense of community.”

The software that allows the school to deliver academic information to virtually any cell phone is supplied by Rave Wireless. Students can receive text message alerts about class changes or cancellations, and can join cell phone “channels” to correspond with students of similar interests. The applications Baruch and Rave are offering also allow students to use cell phones to check on the availability of loaner laptops and study rooms.

An administrative console allows the school to deliver messages to all students, or a select segment. Yet, rapidly notifying all of Baruch’s commuter students about class changes and other news is crucial. For example, Downing points out, during New York City’s recent transportation strike, the cell phone service would have been an invaluable way to immediately reach all students with schedule changes or other updates.

One application from Rave that Baruch is testing allows students to use their phones to instantly “vote” during class, in response to assessment questions from professors. Baruch has tested the technology in a psychology class, but found obstacles. For example, most faculty members simply don’t want students using cell phones in class for any purpose. “It d'esn’t matter if it’s part of the instruction,” Downing says. “The professors don’t want students taking the phones out and turning them on.” Also, the pilot revealed that cell phone signal strength in classrooms isn’t as strong as expected for some carriers. Since students are using various providers, that’s an issue yet to be resolved.

Despite these obstacles, small pilot projects like this one can help institutions test the waters and forge new trails with students, faculty, and staff. That, in turn, can help you prepare for what’s ahead with wireless.

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