Gaining Mobility

A technology leader in higher education continues to revolutionize how students learn and live with a mobile computing wireless initiative.

by / October 2, 2006 0
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 lot of students an edge, because you can't always sit down at your desk to do your work," Kilemi said. "If you have classes the entire day, you might leave your laptop at home and carry your heavy books. With the PDA you can check e-mail between classes, and send yourself homework assignments and do research."

The mobile PDA also simplifies everyday tasks. Former college students probably remember the frustration and time lost waiting for laundry machines to free up and laundry cycles to end.

Wake Forest's LaundryView application allows students to monitor which laundry machines are available and where their own laundry is in the cycle. In the pilot's first phase, LaundryView was only available to students in the Technology Quarters house, but now it's available in all residence halls. The laundry application was so popular with participants that they made requests for similar applications -- such as a connection to the weight room and gym to monitor available treadmills and machines -- to be deployed in the second phase of the pilot.


I'm Here. Where Are You?
During an exam study period, finding a place to plunk down in a college library can be difficult, and accurately describing to a study partner exactly where you're located in the library labyrinth can be even harder, particularly in sprawling libraries with multiple floors and study spaces.

Wake Forest's 2005 program also tested location-based services with the PDA, allowing students to send a virtual message to a pal indicating their exact position in a building, whether among the stacks or nestled in a corner carrel.

"So if I've come to meet with you, I just touch it and it brings up the building directory," Crouch explained. "If I get there and get called away and find a great corner, I can use this device and software to leave a message 'in space' that associates me with the access point. It's a virtual message, location-based, and once you come in the building, you can pull up all the messages that have been typed in. It's like getting an e-mail, but it's only based on where you are."

Crouch likened the device to students putting whiteboards on their dorm room doors, which was a popular communication method in the past.

Eighty percent of Wake Forest students live in dormitories on the Winston-Salem, N.C., campus, and many rely on a shuttle service to travel between buildings. One component of the pilot program's first phase was a shuttle tracker application that showed the shuttle's location on campus at all times.

Students pulled up the shuttle application, used the PDA's voice activation features to work with a multimodal browser that talked back to them, and the PDA brought up a campus map and a report of how many minutes the student would need to wait at the stop. A GPS tracker and a connection between the PDA and campus server generated the information and gave the student an exact indication.

The PDAs can access a wireless connection in any campus building and in some outdoor spots, but Crouch said the information services department is working on expanding access to more outdoor areas, including parking lots.


No More Naps During Lecture
In the pilot's first phase, students were more likely to use the PDA as their phone, class calendar and music player than for direct academic purposes, noted Crouch. But this time, some faculty members will test the PDAs to help pass along notes to students during the day, such as study tips, and others will apply for mini-grants.

Professor Bob Swofford, with the help of WFU's information services, set an example during the first pilot and successfully integrated the PDA in his introductory-level chemistry course.
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 lot of students an edge, because you can't always sit down at your desk to do your work," Kilemi said. "If you have classes the entire day, you might leave your laptop at home and carry your heavy books. With the PDA you can check e-mail between classes, and send yourself homework assignments and do research."

The mobile PDA also simplifies everyday tasks. Former college students probably remember the frustration and time lost waiting for laundry machines to free up and laundry cycles to end.

Wake Forest's LaundryView application allows students to monitor which laundry machines are available and where their own laundry is in the cycle. In the pilot's first phase, LaundryView was only available to students in the Technology Quarters house, but now it's available in all residence halls. The laundry application was so popular with participants that they made requests for similar applications -- such as a connection to the weight room and gym to monitor available treadmills and machines -- to be deployed in the second phase of the pilot.


I'm Here. Where Are You?
During an exam study period, finding a place to plunk down in a college library can be difficult, and accurately describing to a study partner exactly where you're located in the library labyrinth can be even harder, particularly in sprawling libraries with multiple floors and study spaces.

Wake Forest's 2005 program also tested location-based services with the PDA, allowing students to send a virtual message to a pal indicating their exact position in a building, whether among the stacks or nestled in a corner carrel.

"So if I've come to meet with you, I just touch it and it brings up the building directory," Crouch explained. "If I get there and get called away and find a great corner, I can use this device and software to leave a message 'in space' that associates me with the access point. It's a virtual message, location-based, and once you come in the building, you can pull up all the messages that have been typed in. It's like getting an e-mail, but it's only based on where you are."

Crouch likened the device to students putting whiteboards on their dorm room doors, which was a popular communication method in the past.

Eighty percent of Wake Forest students live in dormitories on the Winston-Salem, N.C., campus, and many rely on a shuttle service to travel between buildings. One component of the pilot program's first phase was a shuttle tracker application that showed the shuttle's location on campus at all times.

Students pulled up the shuttle application, used the PDA's voice activation features to work with a multimodal browser that talked back to them, and the PDA brought up a campus map and a report of how many minutes the student would need to wait at the stop. A GPS tracker and a connection between the PDA and campus server generated the information and gave the student an exact indication.

The PDAs can access a wireless connection in any campus building and in some outdoor spots, but Crouch said the information services department is working on expanding access to more outdoor areas, including parking lots.


No More Naps During Lecture
In the pilot's first phase, students were more likely to use the PDA as their phone, class calendar and music player than for direct academic purposes, noted Crouch. But this time, some faculty members will test the PDAs to help pass along notes to students during the day, such as study tips, and others will apply for mini-grants.

Professor Bob Swofford, with the help of WFU's information services, set an example during the first pilot and successfully integrated the PDA in his introductory-level chemistry course.

Information services created a polling application compatible with the device for Swofford to conduct short surveys on the fly. The software allowed students to privately answer the questions, and depending on the answers, the instructor could see if students were on track or if he needed to slow down. Swofford also gave students some time to stop and discuss their answers with each other.

Swofford's goal was to get real feedback from students. During the last few minutes of class, he stopped the lecture and presented the class with a few questions: What was the most important idea of today's class? What left you most confused? What questions do you have?

"I got paragraphs of anonymous responses every day from students, perhaps due to its novelty, but also because they felt empowered, could communicate with the instructor, and the immediacy was important," Swofford said. "One day, the network hiccupped and they couldn't connect with my PDA. I told them to do the same thing later on the Web site. On that day, I got zero feedback. This tells me that immediate feedback for students was important, before they moved on to something else."

The IT group will keep working directly with professors throughout the pilot to integrate technology with coursework, and develop the academic relationship of the device, Crouch said.

Delvon Worthy, a junior, will work with the program this semester and look at how it can be used in the academic arena between professors and students. He tested the device with a business school faculty member, and was required to meet with him weekly and mail out responses to Crouch.

"I loved [the PDA's] phone features, although sometimes you just want a regular flip phone where you answer it and hang up," said Worthy. "I liked checking e-mail and replying right away. I downloaded some music but the available space wasn't that large. I definitely used it as my calendar to keep track of meetings."

This upcoming school year, Worthy will be responsible for investigating how the device can be an academic tool.


Part of the College Experience
Since 1996, WFU has distributed ThinkPads and printers to all incoming students, and those costs are included in tuition, increasing it $1,000 per year. After two years, that laptop is swapped out for a brand new one. Now, for $279, WFU students can purchase the PDA, and the cost includes university insurance for two years, service and repair under warranty.

"Students commit to being a Cingular customer and are billed for the most part by the university," said Crouch. Unlike the inclusive laptop/printer deal for all students, these students are agreeing to purchase the device and work with the university, she said. "The biggest difference with this pilot is we are working through the logistics of having a partner [Cingular] and all the things you have to do to get plans set up for students."

Cingular has had a great relationship with Wake Forest, said Hill. "We think this is a solution that will be replicated in every university and accommodate student data needs, personal life management and all the things the university will offer. We see interest across the board. Wake Forest is out front and the first to deploy it, but universities are all thinking about how they will implement this."

Swofford said he hopes the concept behind the PDA phone will work the same way, inside and outside the classroom. "I am not convinced the [instant] messaging [IM] part of it has a lot of classroom value," he said. "I don't want my student IMing me. E-mail is asynchronous. An IM brings an implicit expectation of immediate response, and is as intrusive as a telephone call."

Indeed, different communication styles between professors and students is one reason the PDA might be successful, in that professors can communicate with students in the classroom in a way that is natural to the college generation, and students can continue to rely on e-mail and telephone calls when contacting professors. The pilot's second phase will have some improvements over the first. Along with additional enhancements, the PDA will be smaller.

"Having a keyboard is really important," said Swofford. "In last year's pilot, the cellular vendors were a little too late in providing a phone in a form that is appealing to students."

The benefits of Mobile University seem endless to Wake Forest's technology gurus, students and professors alike.

"Mobile University provides a standardized, one-on-one device that mirrors the ThinkPad program and all manner of campus services," said Crouch. "This pilot gives us a chance to work through the logistics."

It's likely students don't mind being the guinea pigs in the process, Swofford said. "This is not a luxury device; it's their whole life."