College Campuses Embrace Mobility

By Wylie Wong Print this article Print
Mobile phone apps

Colleges and universities are implementing wireless networks so their students can learn anytime, anywhere on any device.



By Wylie Wong 

For Robeson Community College in North Carolina, the next big leap in technology is mobile learning.

Last year, the IT department built a new 802.11n wireless network with 128 access points from Aruba Networks to accommodate an influx of smartphones, tablets and notebook computers across its 127-acre campus. The college is ratcheting up its mobile efforts this fall by launching a pilot program to equip 110 students with iPads and rolling out an IP television project to allow faculty to either stream lectures live online or record and post them online.

The IT staff is also building a custom app for iPhones and Android phones that will allow students to register for classes, check grades, and log into the learning management system to access course materials and communicate with their instructors and classmates. The goal of the technology is to allow students to learn anytime, anywhere on any device, says Robeson CIO James Tagliareni.

“Kids today do everything on their mobile devices, whether it’s a phone or a tablet,” he says. “That is their expectation and comfort level. They want to access things anytime. They are used to that instant gratification, and to some extent, we are trying to accommodate that.”

Making educational applications and content available on mobile devices is an emerging trend in higher education, reports Ron Bonig, Gartner’s higher education research director. “The more aggressive, forward-thinking colleges and universities are trying to add those capabilities to mobile devices, and they’re just starting to get into it,” he says.

The reasons are twofold: While students crave mobile access to student information and learning management systems, this technology also can enhance the educational experience, Bonig says. In early-adopter institutions, instructors are experimenting with incorporating the mobile devices into their teaching process, he adds. 

Besides mobility, higher education institutions are focusing on online learning and implementing desktop virtualization and cloud computing applications to provide students, faculty and staff with the technology they need, while cutting costs.

Upgrading WiFi Networks

A strong WiFi network is essential to a college’s mobile learning initiative, and many colleges—including Robeson Community College and Mount Wachusett Community College, in Gardner, Mass.—have beefed up their wireless networks in recent years.

In summer 2011, Mount Wachusett’s IT department replaced its aging network with a faster, more reliable network that included much improved Wi-Fi access across its three campuses. The college, which has about 6,900 students, standardized on Enterasys Networks equipment, including 50 switches and more than 65 wireless access points.

With the upgrade, bandwidth speeds at the network core have increased from 1 Gbps to 10 Gbps. And the new wireless network boosted coverage on the main campus to 90 percent (up from 50 percent), providing students, faculty and staff near ubiquitous coverage for their mobile devices, says Susan McHugh, executive director of IT services.

The number of users logging into WiFi has increased from 125 to 175 a week to between 500 and 600 a week. “People are now coming on campus with two or three devices,” she says.

The increased network performance is also providing more reliable access to applications. Nursing students, for example, take their exams online on the Blackboard learning management system, but the previous network could not handle the network load requirements, McHugh says.

The new network has eliminated those problems. “This has increased the faculty’s confidence in our network, as they now realize that it is 100 percent reliable,” she says.

The new network also provides the bandwidth necessary to deploy virtual desktops, technology that supports mobile learning because it allows students to remotely access applications on their computers, tablets and smartphones, McHugh says.

Many community college students have to balance their education with jobs and family and can’t always come on campus to use computer labs, so remote access is important, she explains. “When you can give students the ability to learn anytime and anywhere, it’s a benefit. We want to make them as successful as we can.”

IT staffers were testing Stoneware’s virtual desktop software this summer. If it’s successful, they will deploy the technology across the campus, including the 10 computer labs, during the 2012-2013 school year.

Desktop virtualization will save the college money because it is cheaper than having to replace desktop computers every three years, McHugh says. The technology also reduces support costs because the IT department can manage the virtual desktops centrally on a server.  

Anytime, Anywhere Learning

Robeson Community College, in Lumberton, N.C., which has 3,000 full-time students, is investing in technology inside and outside the classroom to bolster its mobile device and online learning initiatives.

The college’s open-source Moodle learning management system is a big part of its strategy. This fall, administrators are requiring every instructor, not just those teaching online courses, to have a presence on Moodle by launching discussion forums or posting syllabi, reading materials and other educational content, Tagliareni says. “We want faculty to learn to use Moodle and integrate it into the classroom because it can enhance their teaching.”

The IT department will make its mobile phone app available this fall, providing students with mobile access to Moodle and other campus resources, such as emergency notifications.

The college also has deployed an IP video system that will not only improve existing online courses, but also augment traditional classroom learning, Tagliareni says. This fall, online faculty can stream a lecture in real-time to their students or video conference with individual students.

Regular classroom teachers can use the IP video system to record their classroom lectures and post them online. Students who miss class or want to review a lecture can access the lecture over video, he says.

The college is also populating the campus with tablets this fall. Besides piloting iPads to 110 students, the college is equipping administrators and most faculty members with iPads and is in the midst of installing wireless projectors in every classroom. That way, professors can use the tablets to wirelessly project their presentations, Websites and videos on classroom projector screens, Tagliareni says.

To further support mobile learning, the IT staff will provide remote access to applications through desktop and application virtualization this fall.

The IT department, which has been piloting VMware View desktop virtualization software, will make virtual desktops available to administrators and most instructors this fall. It will also provide virtual desktops to students through a phased approach, starting with 300 students, Tagliareni says.

In the meantime, the college is also implementing application virtualization. This is similar to desktop virtualization, but it only provides access to applications and not a full desktop. The college has deployed Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Service, making applications available to every user over the Web.

Through VMware View and Remote Desktop Service, students can access all the applications they need from home on any computer, tablet or smartphone, Tagliareni says. “It’s an equalizer. We are giving students access to software they otherwise can’t afford.”

Cloud Services

Colleges have also embraced the cloud as a cost-effective way to provide applications to faculty, staff and students. For example, Dixie State College of Utah had a choice between purchasing an expensive recruiting application or subscribing to a more affordable cloud-based service. College administrators chose the lower-cost option.

The college, in St. George, Utah, deployed the Enrollment RX cloud service last fall, providing its recruiters with an automated workflow that reminds recruiters to email, call and follow up with potential students. Before the technology, Joshua Sine, Dixie State’s director of new student programs and services, manually managed the workflow with spreadsheets.

Since it began using Enrollment RX, the college has seen more than a 15 percent increase in admissions, he says. “It’s very affordable, and thus far, we’ve had great success.”

This article was originally published on 2012-08-03

Wylie Wong is a freelance writer for Baseline magazine who specializes in technology and business.

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