Oct 31 2006

Pedagogy & IT Practice

Wake Forest experiments with providing Pocket PC phones to students as the all-encompassing communication and application tool.

Wake Forest University is well-known for technological innovation. In the mid-1990s, the university pioneered a program to distribute IBM ThinkPads to all students.

More recently, it tested the use of Pocket PCs for pedagogical, student-life and administrative applications. This year, in a set of pilots called MobileU, the university is evaluating the effectiveness of Pocket PC phones, devices that double as a cell phone and a personal digital assistant (PDA).

Administrators and academicians hope the phone function will encourage more students to carry and use the Pocket PCs.

“Our major goal is to find a good device that students will use, that will fit in with their lifestyle,” says Nancy Crouch, assistant CIO. “Since almost all of them have cell phones, this might fit well.

The pilot uses two virtually identical products –Siemens' SX66 from Cingular and the Audiovox PPC-6600 from Sprint–because neither carrier could provide enough mobile devices to meet the university's needs. When they are outfitted with Wake Forest's growing library of applications, the PDAs are nicknamed “Mobis.”

Off the shelf, the phones come equipped with Pocket PC versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and calendar and address book applications. They will soon include PowerPoint as well. In addition to phone service, they offer instant and text messaging.

Wake Forest University, which is located in Winston-Salem, N.C., is testing the Pocket PC phones in three pilot programs:

• Eleven students use Mobis as representatives of Wake Forest University's Technology Quarters, where students with a special interest in technology live. This pilot will evaluate student innovation.

• All 45 students enrolled in a basic chemistry class have Mobis. This pilot will help determine the academic potential for the device.

• An additional 50 students, chosen from a pool of volunteers among the remaining at-large population, are testing the device as general users.

The school lent the devices to the students in the chemistry class and Technology Quarters. The at-large students purchased the Mobis from the school for $250, which was below the retail cost of the device.

Pedagogical Applications

Bob Swofford, professor of chemistry, was chosen to lead the pedagogical part of the project. “Basically,” he says, “I'm a target of opportunity since I'm a gear head.” He hopes his Mobi will help him avoid “50 minutes of yammering,” which represents the traditional class process.

Swofford's primary-use Mobi application, ClassInHand, was written by the university's IS research and development group. After he lectures on a major concept, Swofford uses the application to request that students use their Mobis to access the Web server that runs on his Mobi. Once there, students use radio buttons to anonymously answer a multiple-choice question. Swofford attributes this concept-testing approach, known as “ConcepTests,” to Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur.

Unless the online polling clearly shows that a comfortable majority of the class understands the concept, Swofford asks the students to turn to a neighbor who had a different answer and duke it out verbally for a few minutes. “That's when the class erupts in bedlam,” he says. “That's also when a lot of the learning happens.”

During student discussions, Swofford strolls around, injecting a comment here and responding to a question there. At the end of the debate period, “I've got them hooked,” he says. “Everyone is paying close attention to me, waiting for the answer.”

The Mobi device has other advantages over traditional classroom procedures. For example, it allows students to transmit questions and answers electronically, and–if the student prefers–anonymously.

Barbara Arinci, a freshman from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., who takes Swofford's course, points out that with the Mobis, “We are able to answer his questions in class more honestly because we do not have to feel embarrassed about raising our hands and getting the answer wrong.”

The only downside to the device for Arinci is common to some electronic devices: If she forgets to power it off, the battery runs down at inopportune times.

One major reason the school selected this model over a Pocket PC without a phone was to encourage students to carry it around like their cell phones. However, many students don't use the Mobi's cell phone function. Arinci's parents carry her on a mobile phone family plan, and she can't afford to get her own account for the Mobi.

At first, Arinci thought carrying it around would be a problem, but the Mobi fits–along with her cell phone–in her smallest purse. And since Arinci has a lot of phone numbers stored on her Mobi, she tends to tote it along most of the time.

The Mobi is also helpful for students who, because of physical factors, prefer e-mail or text messaging to phoning. Catharine McNally, a senior art history major from Winston-Salem, N.C., uses a cochlear implant to help her hold telephone conversations. But doing so takes a lot of concentration and energy. “Having a handheld e-mail, Internet and telephone [device] appealed to me greatly,” McNally says.

In order to maintain good communication–and to replicate some of the immediacy of a voice call–McNally says she always responds to e-mails quickly. She used to carry her ThinkPad around for that purpose. “But that got to be a hassle. I had to find a place to set it up and connect to the Wi-Fi.” She finds the Mobi more practical, since it lets her know in real time when a message comes in.

Gaining Acceptance

Despite the benefits of the system, Swofford sees a few disadvantages. First, size matters–and a Mobi is a bit larger than a traditional PDA.

Swofford also points out that in order for the university as a whole to gain major academic benefits from the Mobis, professors have to be willing to use them. He says preparing the questions for the students to vote on is not particularly daunting, but neither is it trivial. So faculty acceptance of this extra work will be a strong determiner of the Mobi's ability to enhance the academic process.

Swofford believes the primary factors that will determine acceptance include whether students use them as their cell phones (something difficult to gauge, since students will have to return the devices at the end of the semester), and the number of academic and nonacademic applications written for the device.

Swofford thinks a Mobi's ability to control a PowerPoint presentation on a notebook and to run the interactive Web site that students access as part of the ConcepTests will enhance the pedagogical value of the device. Professors can also send outlines of their lectures or post other materials on a class Web site hosted by the university's server with a Mobi. He is also looking forward to the ability to send Rich Site Summary feeds to his on-the-move students on their Mobis.

However, many at Wake Forest believe the key to the success of this project will be the students' use of Mobis as their cell phones. And that will take time. “With all the different plans and all the vendors, it's going to be a challenge to get everyone on the same plan or even group of plans,” says Anne Bishop, director of research and development.

Wake Forest University is now in the process of preparing to gather information based on surveys and interviews with users. If the data turns out to be positive, the organization may decide to distribute the devices broadly. If not, it may look for an alternative or wait for one to come on the market. “It's always difficult to continue to chase new technologies,” says Crouch. “But we feel that's an important part of our jobs. If we decide against Mobi, another technology will soon be on our horizon.”


From finding out when their bus will arrive to locating an open washing machine, the Mobi's applications are numerous and diverse.

Anne Bishop, Wake Forest University's director of research and development, is responsible for overseeing the development and testing of applications and ensuring that they all “play nicely together.” She and others at the university are developing a number of innovative applications to make the Mobi increasingly useful to students.

One application was developed by a student in the Technology Quarters–Thomas Whaples, a junior computer science major from Winston-Salem, N.C.–during an internship with IBM called Extreme Blue. The voice-enabled application allows students to state their location and hear when the shuttle bus will arrive at their stop. The buses are equipped with geographic positioning systems to enable this feature. However, the Mobis themselves do not yet have GPS capability. Bishop has been able to use the Mobis' location as a basis for pushing information to them, though.

In another IBM Extreme Blue project, the internship team installed and voice-enabled an application developed by Mac Gray, a company that provides laundry equipment to the university. The application allows students to ask the Mobi if any washing machines are not in use. So far, the application is only available in the Technology Quarters, but Bishop expects it will be implemented in the dorms soon.

Whenever a student with a Mobi enters a building, the device can also gather information specific to that facility through the wireless local area network (WLAN) technology (802.11). In the library, students can use their devices to access the card catalog. In an academic building, the device displays the building's directory.

A Mobi even allows people to leave and read messages in a building's WLAN. A professor can leave a message that a meeting has been moved or rescheduled. Or a student can post a request for other study partners to join him or her in a specific room.

Bishop has developed a dashboard to allow students to easily move to these applications, as well as to university Web pages, most of which have been optimized for the small screen by eliminating graphics and reducing the number of columns, as well as other methods.

Students can also download their class schedules to their Mobi calendar programs. Besides helping to organize students' days, this has the added advantage of automatically turning off the phone's ringer when the student is in class.

Jun Yang, a sophomore from Richmond, Va., who lives in the Technology Quarters, is so encouraged by the growing number of applications that he plans to purchase a Mobi when the pilot ends. “I think that we'll see more students finding and developing applications as more of us have the Mobi,' he says. Yang's one suggestion is that the university give all students the opportunity to take training classes on Pocket PC application development, if the program is eventually released schoolwide.

While the primary purpose of the Mobi device is for student life and academic applications, Jay Dominick, Wake Forest's CIO, sees a number of potential business-related applications. “Anything that requires quick notification–either to us or from the administrators to students or faculty–can benefit from this,” he says.

The cost of MobileU is an important factor in determining whether to extend the program. No one expects it to pay for itself. “We generally don't use a return-on-investment metric as one of our major considerations in a case like this,” Dominick says. “For things that impact students, we focus more on a cost-benefit tradeoff. Of course, if we saw a business opportunity that had a good ROI, we would be interested.”

Wake Forest University

Founded: 1834
President: Nathan O. Hatch
Location: Winston-Salem, N.C.
Enrollment: 6,451
Endowment: about $907 million
Motto: “Pro Humanitate” (for humanity)
Rhodes Scholars: Nine (since 1986)
Notable Alumnus: Tim Duncan, All-Star basketball player for the San Antonio Spurs

Larry Stevens is a technology writer in Monson, Mass.