Wearable computers to liberate academia

November 21, 2003

Welcome to the campus without walls. The advent of wearable, mobile computing has the potential to liberate students, researchers and academics from the physical confines of lecture theatres, libraries and laboratories, according to analysis published today.

A report commissioned by the Joint Information Systems Committee predicts that communications technology being developed could have a major impact on many areas of further and higher education.

Mobile phones, personal digital assistants and a variety of innovative wearable devices could be used to extend the classroom beyond its usual physical confines, give greater access to electronic resources and expand the immediate impact of fieldwork.

The projects at the forefront of the mobile revolution range from IBM's WatchPad, which runs a version of the Linux operating system on a wrist-watch computer, to the Xybernaut mobile assistant, which features a head-mounted display unit and a wrist-strapped mini-keyboard.

Pilot studies into the potential uses of the technology are being run in the UK and the US.

In the past year, wireless handheld computers have been used by students at Birmingham University, enabling them to check notes before lectures or instantly communicate with one another.

According to Mike Sharples, director of the Centre for Educational Technology and Distance Learning at the university, technology has already started to change the way many students work. Some prefer to complete projects at home as they can still gain access to resources without venturing onto campus.

"There will be fewer rooms full of students staring at laptop screens, and more will work at home," Professor Sharples said.

The technology made it easier to work in groups and made teaching of collaborative, self-directed and resource-based learning easier, he added.

Other pilot schemes include the testing of e-graffiti, which allows electronic messages to be left in a physical location for passers-by to read, at the University of California, San Diego, and the use of handheld computers at East Carolina University for most aspects of courses, from the provision of electronic resources to exams.

Report co-author Sara de Freitas, a learning and skills research centre fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, said that, if this sort of technology was adopted in a coherent way, the impact could be great.

"This could enable us to engage new learners and widen participation," she said. "It is an opportunity to rethink how we deliver content."

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