Wap gets the campus call

October 13, 2000

Alongside the Investors in People and Queen's Award plaques, most campus receptions prominently display a mobile phone ban. But a rehabilitation of the mobile menace is on the cards. Administrators and tutors are beginning to see how useful the technology might be for keeping in touch with their students.

It is students' attachment to mobile phones that makes them so attractive to information providers. Worries about whether students will check their in-trays or emails are forgotten when messages can be sent directly to a device that students carry with them.

Most students have the relatively unsophisticated first-generation telephones, but even these can provide useful information services. The short message service allows up to 160 characters to be sent to a phone when, for example, lectures are cancelled. The service is much better for this sort of time-critical news than the conventional scrawled apology attached to a lecture-room door.

But more sophisticated mobile phones will be on the market soon. The wireless application protocol (Wap)allows users to access internet sites specially designed for the small screen. Several institutions are experimenting with student information Wap sites - among them the universities of Southampton and Middlesex.

Others, including Bath Spa University College and Teesside and Buckingham universities, are more enthusiastic. Like Bath Spa's Wap offering, Teesside's site holds only a sub-set of the information on the conventional website. But it aims to extend the services so students can access their timetables and email accounts.

Last week, the University of Buckingham launched its alumni Wap service - AlumNet Lite - aimed at former students who can use it to track down friends and former course mates.

It is expected that Wap technology will rise in popularity as more creative services become available. These could, for example, allow a student to access the university library catalogue while visiting the library: by keying in a book's title via the handset, the student could be guided to the right bookshelf. If the volume cannot be found, the student could use the phone to reserve it or ask for alternatives.

As it stands, Wap technology has its limitations. The screen is too small, keypads too limited and sites contain only text and simple greyscale graphics.

Andy Price, head of corporate communications at the University of Teesside, concedes that there are deficiencies, but he compares Wap to the early days of the web. It was simple and graphics-free, but it was an effective communication medium.

His advice to anyone wanting to make the most of Wap is to understand the technology, avoid over-hyping its potential and provide simple, fast access to valued content.

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