North Carolina's Wake Forest University (WFU) first linked technology and students in 1996, when the university distributed IBM ThinkPads to all of its students.
Now, WFU is testing a new technology link, and this time, the device of choice is a smart phone PDA running PocketPC. In the first phase of a pilot, during the 2005-2006 school year, the phones were distributed to 100 students. In the pilot's second phase, as many as 500 students, faculty and staff in 2006 will receive phones.
The 2005-2006 "Mobile University" pilot programs -- or "MobileU" -- looked to test the phone's potential benefit for students' academic and social lives, and determine the range of integration for an individual communication device with campus services.
"We learned that the students liked the ThinkPad applications in class, but they did note that carrying two different technological devices to the classroom, including the cell phone, was inconvenient," said Nancy Crouch, WFU's assistant CIO. "We are a ThinkPad university and don't intend to replace it. But it's not as mobile as one might think, and there are some disadvantages to using it in a classroom, such as wait time for booting it up and its larger size."
As a result, the school's information services department looked for more mobile solutions, while considering a related problem -- a significant decline in the use of dormitory landline phones to make local and long distance calls.
"Even though we provide phone jacks, they use those and their voicemail in their rooms less and less," said Crouch, adding that communicating directly with students was also a concern. "Professors were having to call long distance cell phone numbers, so this narrowed communication down to e-mail or nothing, or face-to-face or nothing. Those problems all together presented a case for a pocket PC/cell phone device, which drove us to work with a cellular company."
In the pilot's first phase, students had the option between using Siemens' SX66 with a plan from Cingular and the Audiovox PPC-6600 with a plan from Sprint. In addition to working as phones and PDAs, the devices are equipped Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook Express.
Another key need met by the PDA is parental communication, said Chris Hill, vice president of government solutions at Cingular Wireless.
"Parents want to understand what is going on and stay in contact with their children," Hill said. "The PDAs can facilitate emergency notifications and even location-based services in conjunction with university police."
Of the 100 student volunteers, some opted to purchase the device, and an entire freshman-level chemistry class and its professor received the device for free with the expectation of full integration in the curriculum.
This school year, all WFU students can purchase a device, a corresponding plan, and the upgraded Cingular 8125, which includes a camcorder/camera, a QWERTY keyboard, Windows Media Player, slide-out keyboard and MP3 capability.
Testing Wireless Use
Kariithi Kilemi graduated from WFU in May 2006 with a major in information systems. He participated in the pilot program by opting into the Cingular plan and device, and found the device's mobility and 24/7 access most useful.
"You can download your school schedule from the school portal so it could be saved on your Outlook calendar. I used it mostly for organization and in-class research because at times, it's tedious to carry your laptop everywhere," said Kilemi. "I could also download files from my laptop to the PDA. It just increases the mobility a student has in terms of being able to access information."
He said convenience was the most attractive part of using the PDA, because having the PDA was similar to carrying around a laptop everywhere but a whole lot easier.
"As we are moving into an increasingly mobile environment, this gives a