Western will conduct pilot study of use of hand-held, wireless computers

CULLOWHEE — Information at the touch of their fingertips — that’s how today’s students at Western Carolina University and elsewhere are exploring their world. But blending time-honored teaching traditions with the tools of technology has become a challenge at colleges and universities nationwide, with faculty and students struggling to keep pace with the ever-expanding field of computers and instant access to information.

The classroom potential offered by the latest high-technology innovations of wireless networks and mobile computing is the subject of a pilot program at Western Carolina to begin in the spring 2001 semester.

Funded in part by The University of North Carolina Teaching and Learning with Technology Collaborative, the project is designed to investigate how the new wireless hand-held devices can promote active classroom learning, and how “palm” technology can be used to achieve the educational benefits of “ubiquitous computing” — that is, access to computers and computer resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The hand-held devices, referred to as personal digital assistants (PDAs), feature such basic applications as a personal calendar, contact database, calculator and note-pad capabilities. When coupled with wireless Ethernet networks, the devices can be used for such advanced functions as Web and e-mail access. “Any classroom becomes an electronic classroom when students bring palm computer devices to class, provided that wireless Ethernet networking is available,” said Frank Prochaska, WCU associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

“Palm technology is an emerging giant among innovative communication options,” said Prochaska, who is directing the pilot study. “The question needs to be asked, how can palm technology be used to benefit teaching and learning and to foster increased student interest and active learning in the classroom? Through this pilot project, we hope to find some answers.”

The hand-held devices are not meant to replace the desktop or laptop computers, but rather to enhance their capabilities, said Bob Orr, computing consultant with the Coulter Faculty Center, who is serving as project manager. Using a cradle attached to the desktop computer, information can be transferred back and forth between the hand-held unit and the student’s computer. “This project is really exciting. We are exploring cutting-edge technology and will be able to do things not yet thought of, as well as to do the things we do now faster, better and cheaper,” said Orr.

Among the anticipated uses of the wireless hand-held devices is the ability of faculty members to acquire real-time evaluation of student learning — instant feedback that should allow faculty to continuously adjust curriculum items, assignments, and learning objectives to better match individual students’ abilities, Orr said.

Students and faculty also may use the devices to access Web-based information sites to enhance classroom instruction and discussion, including the communication opportunities of instant e-mail, discussion groups participation and chat access.

“The ultimate goal of the project is to allow students convenient ubiquitous computing in the palms of their hands, being able to easily access computer information anytime, anywhere,” said Prochaska.

The project will use three varieties of hand-held units, including the Handspring Visor and Compaq IPAQ 3650 Pocket PC, some of which were purchased through the UNC grant funds. The Palm Corp. is donating 20 units of its Palm IIIx to WCU for use in the study. “It’s important for us to find out how faculty and students will use these devices. We’ve only been in education for a few months, so we are very excited to see what creative uses there are for the units,” said Mary A. C. Fallon, director of higher education marketing for Palm.

Faculty volunteers teaching society and law, English composition, personal and community health, and a graduate-level course in multimedia education have volunteered to restructure one class apiece to use the palm devices beginning in January 2001. Those faculty members also will teach a second section of the same course without using the PDAs. These “control groups” will help demonstrate the impact the devices have on the teaching and learning process by comparing learning outcomes in the two sections.

Another group of students enrolled in a technical writing class has been shadowing those faculty members during the fall semester, documenting how they are revamping their course curricula. They also are doing Web research to investigate uses of technology in learning and are serving as resource persons for the faculty volunteers.

At the end of the pilot project, Western plans to distribute its findings nationally so that other colleges and universities can apply what has been learned during the study.