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PDAs Are Coming to Campus

PDAs Are Coming to Campus

Brand names of handheld computing devices, such as Palm, Blackberry and iPAQ Pocket PC, are widely known to American consumers. The popularity of these devices, also known as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), among busy professionals has especially boomed given their capacity for data storage, organizing information and various computing tasks.
Consequently, as campus administrators and faculty members have adopted computing devices for professional use, IT departments at colleges and universities have increasingly begun to service them and enable their users to access information on campus networks and databases through hardwired connections.
“PDAs are becoming important information technology tools on campus,” says Dr. Margaret Schultz, director of academic and technology services at Pomona College in Pomona, Calif.
The growing use of PDAs comes at a time when the information technology revolution in higher education has seemingly slowed down — largely due in part to last year’s dot-com meltdown of Internet-based businesses. The trend of PDA use, however, is significant enough that more than a handful of colleges and universities have launched teaching and learning projects that use handheld devices in the classroom.
In a few schools, such as the University of Minnesota-Duluth, academic departments have mandated students to use PDAs in their classes. At the university, this year’s incoming freshman engineering and computer science students are required to use iPAQ computing devices in their computer science and engineering courses. iPAQ is the brand of handheld computing devices manufactured by the Compaq Computer corporation.
For most schools, the added responsibility of having their IT departments provide technical support for handheld computing devices would prove a daunting challenge, particularly given the numerous brands of devices that are available in the marketplace. Yet a number of IT departments have begun programs that provide support for faculty members and administrators who use PDAs.

Cautious Approach
Pomona College’s Schultz says the demand for PDA technical support comes from college employees who have either personally purchased a PDA or have obtained one from their departments. At Pomona, nearly all of the 21 staff employees in the Pomona IT department are using PDAs from the popular Palm Pilot line, according to Schultz. She says her department helps college faculty members, administrators and other staffers configure selected personal computer programs, such as Microsoft Outlook, for downloading information from their office personal computers onto PDAs that use the Palm operating system.
“We’re looking at ways to extend the use of campus information onto PDAs,” Schultz says, adding that the IT staff is exploring the possibility of downloading campus Web page information to PDAs.
At Elgin Community College in Elgin, Ill., Louis A. Herman, managing director of information technology, currently describes his school’s institutional support of PDAs as “a backroom operation” while college staff provide support for employees with PDAs and investigate additional ways to integrate their use on the campus. 
“We’re just getting started in it. We’re doing R&D to see how far we can take PDAs,” Herman says.
One goal of the Elgin IT department is to enable school employees to download Web pages from the school’s Web site onto PDAs using the Palm operating system. “That’s the next step,” Herman says.
Higher education IT officials, following a cautious approach to integrating support for PDAs on the campus, are closely watching institutions that have chosen a more aggressive route with faculty members who are using PDAs for instructional purposes.
“I think the use of PDAs is going to grow,” Schultz notes.
Medical schools, in particular, are experimenting with PDAs. Faculty members are having students to use them on clinical rotations, tracking patient care, downloading patient records and accessing anatomical diagrams.
The Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palm Inc. company, which manufactures the Palm line of PDAs and licenses the Palm operating system, has recently awarded 17 technology grants to U.S. universities and teaching hospitals.
“Students wearing Palm handhelds in their lab coats will be able to have easy access to pharmaceutical formularies, trusted protocols and guidelines, lab results, patient information, pharmacy records, and other information, as well as generate notes more easily,” says Mike Lorion, Palm’s vice-president of education.
College and universities with prominent PDAs initiatives for undergraduate study include George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.; East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.; Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the Penn State University campus in Abington, Penn.  

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