Technology's Latest Wave: Colleges and Universities Are Increasingly Exploring the Academic Use of Digital Mobile Devices-But Lack of Money Sometimes Stands in the Way

Article excerpt

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.

A MATTER OF RESOURCES

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. …