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Technology’s Latest Wave

Technology’s Latest Wave

Colleges and universities areincreasingly exploring the academic use of digital mobile devices — but lack of money sometimes stands in the way

By Peter Galuszka

Reaching for her iPod, Dorian Scheuch gets ready to study. The student at Georgia College & State University tunes into special music she has downloaded from a Web site prepared by her professor for a class titled “Utopia/Dystopia.” She listens to music and starts reviewing pictures of significant old buildings.

“This helps me understand how certain songs can connect to Gothic and classical architecture and other things we learned in class,” says Scheuch. “The iPods have helped with my studying habits. I used to get distracted in my room by my roommate and friends’ background noise.

“Now, I can take my iPod anywhere and the songs keep me on task and centered on my work.”

That’s just what Dr. Robert Viau wants to hear. The professor of English and interdisciplinary studies, known informally around the Milledgeville, Ga., campus as “iRob,” has been instrumental in what may be the longest-running college experiment with mobile digital devices.

For nearly three years, Viau has deployed about 60 of the iPod devices, provided with help from manufacturer Apple Computer Inc., in a variety of ways. Students go to a special Web site to download music and lectures that they can take with them anywhere. On a trip to Turkey, students listen to the iPods as they wander around archaeological sites or mosques. 

Soon, students will be using them for a class in 18th-century British literature, says Viau, who also helps head his college’s honors program.

Using mobile digital devices — iPods, personal digital assistants (PDAs), Tablet PCs or advanced cell phones — is becoming a big campus trend. Their advantages include convenience and the ability to hear lectures or course-related music just about anywhere. PDA’s such as Palm Pilots and BlackBerrys, iPods such as Apple’s and Tablet PCs, including ones made by Hewlett-Packard, all provide ways for busy students to carry a lot of information wherever they go.

PDAs allow students to communicate with each other and their teachers, making it easy to work on joint projects. Tiny iPods can download great  quantities of data. More expensive Tablet PCs offer many attributes of laptops and can easily integrate into university wireless communities.

Even so, there are significant obstacles to overcome. Some of the mobile devices, notably PDAs, are too small to be easily used and some universities don’t have the information technology infrastructure to handle them. The biggest impediment is money. Each mobile device costs at least a few hundred dollars each, while top-quality Tablet PCs run over $1,700 apiece. There are other costs involving infrastructure upgrades, as well.

Money, however, wasn’t an object in the largest experiment so far. This fall, Duke University provided iPods to each of its 1,650-member freshman class. The program is part of a year-long pilot project, put together with help from Apple, to explore iPods’ academic potential, says David Menzies, manager of the office of information technology at Duke.

Duke students don’t have to pay extra for their iPods, which retail from about $200 to $500 each, since the university is shelling out $500,000 for the gear and faculty coordination. Duke appears to have deep enough pockets to carry it through. The school is generously endowed with a nest egg of about $2.5 billion, and tuition alone runs nearly $28,500 a year. Smaller institutions, however, are forced to rely on the largesse of big corporations such as Apple or Hewlett-Packard, which have funded small-scale experiments but can’t simply hand out their gear for free.

There’s considerable interest, for example at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas, but a lack of money has been stalling efforts. The historically Black college with 650 students wants to explore using Tablet PCs “but it depends on a whole lot of funding,” says Janice Smith, assistant professor of teacher education.

One plan calls for acquiring 21 Tablet PCs, a wireless access point, a projector and a stipend for a faculty adviser. Students could use the Tablet PCs as an extension of their classrooms and because Huston-Tillotson is rigged for wireless operations on campus, students could easily exchange information of all types with their professors and with each other, Smith says. What’s more, the school already has Microsoft XP and Office software, rather than earlier Window-versions that can’t operate with the newer Tablet PCs, Smith says.

Funding the pilot project would require about $50,000, including $35,000 for gear and $15,000 for a faculty stipend. The school applied to Hewlett-Packard, which makes Tablet PCs and has grants available, but Huston-Tillotson didn’t make the cut. “There were only 200 grants given out nationally,” Smith says.

School administrators are not giving up and are looking into ways to have students partially subsidize the purchase of the Tablet PCs, whose average cost is about $1,400. “The Tablet PCs would eventually replace laptops,” which many students routinely have, Smith says. In fact, administrators are looking into making the use of Tablet PCs mandatory at some point in the future because of their mobility, ease of use and other benefits.

“If you come into the teacher education or the business program, this is the device you’ll need to get a degree,” she says.

Huston-Tillotson officials had also looked at other mobile digital devices, including PDAs, but  rejected them. “We didn’t pursue them because of the small sizes of their screens,” Smith says.

That was the same conclusion reached nearly three years ago at Cedarville University not far from Dayton, Ohio. The school acquired about 40 PDAs and distributed them to students in an experiment, says director of computer services David Rotman. The idea was to have students use the PDAs, which then cost about $500 each, to keep track of courses, assignments and e-mail.

 The PDAs were useful to nursing students as they did clinical work, Rotman says. Nurses could tap in data about patients as they constantly walked from hospital room to room. All in all, however, PDAs were a bust. “The perceived benefit didn’t meet the cost,” Rotman says. The calendar function of the units didn’t work well and the screens were too small to be easily used.

That doesn’t mean that the small Baptist-affiliated school has given up on mobile devices. Rotman says that the school is looking at Tablet PCs and is applying for a grant from Hewlett-Packard to test them. Another possibility is using advanced cell phones, some of which combine many PDA functions. They also can work over emerging Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems in which telephone signals are sent over the Internet and hold considerable promise in coming years.

There is some risk that iPods and Tablet PCs will prove short-term fads. Educators may be wasting some time paying too much attention to them as technology leapfrogs past these technologies. A case in point, says Cedarville’s Rotman, is the PDA.

But Wall Street is certainly paying attention. iPods have Apple computer founder and guru Steve Jobs reinventing his firm. In the first quarter of last year, iPods generated revenues worth $1.4 billion, more than the previous four quarters combined. Some analysts believe that iPods alone will propel Apple’s revenues by $6.2 billion in a year or so, a figure that once equaled Apple’s total revenue, writes Merrill Lynch analyst Steven Milunovich who calls the iPods “the tail wagging the dog” at Apple.

At Georgia College & State University, in Milledgeville, the idea for using mobile digital devices came from the top. In 2002, Randall Thursby, vice chancellor for information technology at the University System of Georgia, which oversees public higher education in the state, noted how much his iPod helped him at work and wondered if it had an academic application. He encouraged GC&SU to submit proposals for programs to use them. Classroom iPod use started in the fall of 2002.

“We are light years ahead of Duke,” Viau says.

One problem that had to be overcome involved connecting to digital “mother ships” located at the school. Conceptually, the school would have open computer labs where faculty, using iBooks, could transfer data for courses, such as photos, music or lectures. Teachers could update the data at any time. Students dropped by and downloaded the material.

But logistical problems in the open labs came up and had to be overcome. Now students can download password-protected information from a Web site, Viau says.

What’s more, there’s some question about whether GC&SU needs to move beyond iPods. Displaying images, such as photographs, is problematic because of the small screens of the units, Viau says. New iPhoto versions of iPods are coming out that can display images of great works of art, but the images often are only one quarter the size of what they would be in an old-fashioned, printed textbook. “We have reservations about that,” says Viau, who says that pocket PCs may be the next step.

Says Dr. Kenneth C. Green, head of the Campus Computing Project, about all of the various high-tech gadgets available for academic use: “There’s not really a single platform choice … Each of the devices has an interesting potential, it’s a matter of meeting the right challenge. We’re at the earliest part of the learning curve”

For now, though, it seems that GC&SU students are happy with their iPods. “My iPod is awesome,” says Stacey Team, a freshman. “I don’t go anywhere without it; it has opened a new door for our class, too. When I’m completely stressed out, all I need is my iPod and some fresh air. I would venture to say that it is more useful than a Swiss Army knife.”

Related Links

The Global Ideas Bank, a site for new technology ideas:

The iPod Project at Georgia College & State University:

iPod for the Classroom:

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