Internet takes learning wireless


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A wireless network is helping Chatham University sophomore Veronica Leone to master organic chemistry.

In her class, assistant professor Corey Stilts is able to send via a wireless connection his notes as he makes them -- inserting model drawings and equations -- to each of 25 students in the room, all of whom have tablet PCs on which they can follow along, take notes and have their own copies.

In most places on campus, Ms. Leone, 19 of Ridgefield Park, N.J., can open her laptop, review the notes, check e-mail or surf the Web. In her dorm room, she can choose a hard-wired network port or use a wireless one.

For Ms. Leone, the question isn't whether she needs her laptop; it's how to best make it work when and where she needs it.

Wireless Internet connections, she said, are "very useful and easy because it can be very cumbersome to have to carry around an Ethernet cable all the time."

A wireless network is becoming an expected amenity on college campuses.

In 1995, Carnegie Mellon University became one of the first schools nationwide to install a wireless network.

By last fall, more than half of college classrooms had wireless service, according to the latest survey by the Campus Computing Project. That compares to about a third just three years earlier.

"Our students and faculty and staff like the ability to have some mobility and flexibility," said John Ziegler, executive director of computing and technology services at Duquesne University.

"It really does make for more collaborative learning," said Sheryl Reinhard, director of operations systems and network services at Duquesne.

Duquesne so far has wireless available in the student union, outdoor areas, library and law school. It will be expanding it into academic buildings. Its use on some parts of campus is moderate, with its biggest users at the law school.

"This is a culture of multitaskers now," You see them on the phone, on the computer, working together. It's just what the expectation is now," Ms. Reinhard said.

The University of Pittsburgh finished installing wireless Internet service in all of its academic buildings in August. Residence halls have wireless in the common areas and a wired port for each bed in each room. There are more than 2,000 wireless access points.

"Wireless is available in Starbucks. People really come to expect it," said Jinx Walton, director of computing services and systems development at Pitt.

"The university is interested in making sure all the students on campus are able to have really leading-edge technology services. Wireless is a real component of that at this point."

Ms. Walton said there are other advantages than just being able to do homework on the lawn of the Cathedral of Learning.

"For the most part, I think it's just conducting business," she said. "It's doing their student work. I would assume a lot of what is done on wireless is e-mail. It gives you the opportunity to just work anytime, anywhere as long as you have your portable device with you."

"From a wireless device, a student can basically transform any space they're in into a learning space automatically," said Howard Ishiyama, vice president for academic affairs at La Roche College, which will have wireless Internet in all academic buildings and common areas by January.

At Washington & Jefferson College, wireless access is available on about half of the campus, including the library and common areas.

"We want people to be able to access their resources and our resources in an easy way. We just want them to be able to get what they need whenever they need it," said Daniel Faulk, director of information and technology services at W&J.

"I do think there's just an expectation on the students' side that it's just going to be there."

At St. Vincent's College, the wireless network in the Robert S. Carey Student Center helps commuter student Megan Clark maximize her time on campus.

Ms. Clark, 21, a senior from Latrobe, finds a comfortable chair -- often one with a desktop -- where she can check her e-mail and do online research for classes.

"When I have that little bit of time, I usually just do things that are quick, like checking my e-mail," she said. "There are days I have two to three hours between classes. That's when I get the majority of my papers done."

At CMU, Stephanie Seki, of Oahu, Hawaii, a senior majoring in civil engineering, said she brings her laptop once or twice a week if she wants to work outside or away from the computer clusters or is meeting with a professor.

"It's a great convenience for the students," she said.

At Duquesne University, David Carbonara, director of instructional technology in the School of Education, sometimes has his students take his 8 a.m. class from wherever they are -- some of them using wireless connections.

One of the points is to give them experience using technology, including software that enables all of them to use headphones and microphones to interact orally with each other over the Internet.

And if there's a blizzard this winter, his students shouldn't count on class cancellation. Class can be conducted wherever they are, via a wireless or hard-wired Internet connection.

While the use of the network is growing on the W&J campus, Mr. Faulk said, "I don't think we'll ever get to heavy use of wireless.

"In some ways, I think wireless is the great unfulfilled promise," he said. "It isn't as fast as having a wired connection. It's not as secure as having a wired connection. I think for those reasons, the heaviest users -- people who use resources the most intensely -- will probably want to continue using wired connections more than wireless."

The use of wireless in the classroom has been more problematic than its use in common areas on campuses.

While Chatham has been phasing in a requirement that students own a tablet PC, most schools don't require students to have wireless devices.

Peter Brusilovsky, associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in Web-based education and human-computer interaction, said he doesn't build his classes around the available wireless connectivity because not all students have a device.

However, he thinks some disciplines could benefit from their use in class, and he sees the day coming when cheaper, small hand-held wireless devices that access the Internet will make it more practical.

"The revolution is coming. Almost every device that is used for one reason will get another reason," Dr. Brusilovsky, said

Dr. Ishiyama sees the day coming when laptops will have high-quality microphones and video for the Internet.

"It's going to provide some very interesting opportunities for higher education. Then you can interact with literally anybody on this planet," he said.

At the Moon campus of Robert Morris University where about 60 percent of the classrooms have wireless access, some instructors rely on mobile carts of wireless equipment for students to work on group projects or labs, said Ellen Wieckowski, chief information officer.

While some students use their laptops to take notes, some faculty view wireless Internet access as a distraction because students surf the Web or send e-mail during class.

At the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, professor Kevin Ashley said, "One of the issues discussed in law schools today is whether it's a good thing to have students on laptops. Some object because they're answering e-mail or playing solitaire or doing all sorts of things that are not related to participating in class.

"Personally, I think that horse was out of the barn long ago, and we need to find other ways to get them to participate in class."

He said he hasn't noticed a change in class participation even though students may be clicking away.

"It's a Socratic teaching method I use," he said. "I pose a question and they provide answers and I respond to their answers. That's how we proceed. As long as the hands are going up and people are responding, I don't care what else they're doing."


Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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