Time to cut the cables?

April 30, 2004

A Dutch university is leading the way in Europe by going totally wireless. This has drastically changed the way students study and learn, as Pat Leon found out.

Twente University in the Netherlands is Europe’s first wireless campus. With 650 access points, staff and students can stroll from classroom to café, residence and even the surrounding woods and parkland with their laptops and mobile phones logged on. Gone are the banks of computers that blight the vista and cut off social contact to reveal open spaces constantly reconfigured to match the occasion. From these fan out break-out rooms, where groups of students, laptop on knee or table, chatter and work together.

Stan Vriezenga, a second-year student in industrial engineering, says that only in the furthest corner of a 1960s concrete accommodation block do students have to wiggle their laptop to get an internet or intranet connection.

The signals are transmitted from access points - or compact transceivers - which take the form of little grey corner boxes or 30cm-long white rods suspended from ceilings. These link to the hub, whose colourful neural (wired) network sits encased in steel and glass in a room not much bigger than a cupboard.

Companies IBM, Cisco and Volker Stevin Telecom worked together to put the necessary infrastructure in place. To get best possible campus coverage, the university opted for a speed of 11 megabytes per second, to be boosted later.

The change to wi-fi was not without ructions among the 2,500 staff. Senior managers backed down from a proposal to strip academics and PhD students of their offices because of the fierce emotions this stirred. The effects on staff teaching and student learning styles are also under the microscope, especially on the pilot programmes. Three new industrial degree courses were chosen because it was easier for teachers to integrate new technology into curriculum planning.

Wiebe van der Veen, science communication spokesman, says that the type of laptop used depends on the course. Students on industrial design engineering, for example, all have the same equipment and they will use “heavy” design software.

Staff and students can pick up equipment they need from the university IT shop. This offers students and employees a range of products, including desktops, laptops, PDAs and printers. There are three major brands of laptops (Asus, Acer, Toshiba), and about five versions of each are available.

Staff and students can get special deals, van der Veen says. “You can pay back the money over three years via your salary or by exchanging part of your holiday time, which is really more attractive than it sounds.

“The university also offers home network connections. On-campus students are most privileged, as they have a 100-megabyte connection in their room. Off-campus you can choose dial-in connections, cable or high-speed digital subscriber line connections at fair prices.”

Canadian Betty Collins, Shell professor of Networked Learning, pioneered Twente’s e-learning environment, TeleTOP. She believes technology is stretching the mould of higher education. “We are being pushed and pulled so much that soon there’ll soon be a rip and we’ll see a different model.”

Research she has conducted with colleagues on the effects of technology on universities in nine countries reveals two trends. First, there has been a gradual shift away from the physical campus and a move towards network access as the heart of participation, and, second, a change in decision-making.

“Traditionally committees made decisions but the process is being stretched in terms of when, where, what and how,” she says.

Technology is also shifting students’ learning experience from simple knowledge acquisition to knowledge construction, through working together, problem-solving and getting solutions that they did not know in advance.

“Instead of going to a textbook, the pleasure is in going to Google or a digital library to extend what is in the textbook,” she says. “Whereas before you were prescribed reading, now you have the excitement and the burden of choice.”


Wi-fi pros and cons


Pros:

  • Cableless
  • Unobtrusive
  • Frees up space
  • Flexibility of kit, rooms and teaching
  • Mobile
  • Easy access
  • More open learning and teaching

Cons:

  • Security problems
  • Physical vulnerability of mobile devices
  • Costs (coming down)
  • Student affordability and access
  • Limited for high bandwidth uses
  • Building structure may block use
  • Support cost in terms of people and personnel
  • Fear of change

ICT in Higher Education, Issue No. 3
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