By Mark Cain

Beginning in fall 2000, College of Mount St. Joseph, in Cincinnati, will begin its MERLIN (Media-Rich Learning Infrastructure) program, which will allow freshmen to use handheld PCs—the NEC MobilePro 880—as part of a wireless learning environment.

Students will be able to access course notes, online tests, class discussion lists, library materials, and the Internet. All full-time students will pay $250 per semester to fund the program.

Each year, a new freshman class will be added along with the infrastructure—wireless access points and MetaFrame Servers—to support it. The school predicts that by the fall of 2003, “universal and ubiquitous computing” will be a reality.

This case study examines why the college wanted to create a wireless environment, the technology involved, and what capabilities it will give students. Though the environment is a college, and not a business, this idea would work well with many enterprises.

Technology at St. Joseph
College of Mount St. Joseph has aggressively implemented technology to serve learning. Two-thirds of the faculty use PowerPoint, create Web pages in support of their courses, or use Web-based course management software.

The college also has an active distance-learning program. Before long, most (if not all), course offerings will have a substantial multimedia component.

But while technology plays a substantial role in the college’s educational methods, it has also posed several challenges.

As the use of computers at the college has increased, providing enough computers for students has been difficult. We have too few general-purpose computers for students to write papers, do homework assignments, check e-mail, and surf the Web.

In addition, students do not have remote access to the software in teaching labs. This is a particular problem for the college because most of our students are commuters. So, while the college is building an elaborate media-rich learning environment, it does not possess an adequate infrastructure to deliver it to students.

What St. Joseph wanted to offer
Our solution would have to provide ubiquitous computing and allow students access to computer-based resources anytime, anywhere. The solution must also provide for portable computing and must be easy to access, transport, and use. Whatever solution we came up with would also need to work both on and off campus.

Students would need to be able to check e-mail, surf the Web, take notes in class, complete homework assignments, write papers, and access courseware. This courseware would tie directly to class assignments and would range from programming languages to SPSS (statistical software) to Microsoft Project to Maple (math software).

Finally, the solution would have to allow students easy access to library resources, which include thousands of journal articles, a large number of full-text monographs, and an electronic reserve system through which students can access images of reserve items, all available through a Web front-end.

However, we realized that whatever we did had to be affordable for our students. Our school is a private institution, with tuition higher than publicly funded competitors. Any technology fee used to support a universal-computing requirement could not be excessive.

Which computer?
But what kind of computer would meet all our needs?

We considered laptops but were concerned with several problems. They are too expensive, too heavy, and take too long to boot up. (Imagine if you are a student coming into class five minutes late. Everyone else is already working on their machines, but you lose another minute waiting for yours to come on and launch an application.)

And, after two hours, many laptops run out of battery life. Unless we wanted to run an awful lot of power into each classroom, long battery life was essential for the project’s success.

Larger CE devices were a better alternative. Many are only slightly smaller than notebook computers, yet they are relatively inexpensive and lightweight. And because they don’t have a hard disk to spin up during a boot-up process, they are instant on and off.

You can even shut them off in the middle of a file and not lose the data. And unlike laptops, their batteries can last from seven to 12 hours.

We also had to consider infrastructure. Conventional approaches would have the students plugging into a wired network, requiring network wires and hubs or many ports in each classroom.

Students would also need access to course-related software. But because the needs would change from semester to semester, there would be the constant task of installing and uninstalling applications on student machines. This would be a support nightmare.

Wireless thin client
We finally decided to create a totally new model for student computing: wireless thin client.

In the new model, each student would be equipped with a handheld PC, in this case a Windows CE device with an 8- to 10-inch monitor and an almost full-scale keyboard.

Such devices include Hewlett-Packard’s Jornada 820 , Compaq’s Aero 8000, and Sharp’s Mobilon TriPad 6000 . On the CE device would reside basic productivity software, including Pocket Office and a Web browser.

The handheld CE would also have a modem for off-campus use. On-campus network connectivity would be via a wireless network card. Last October, the new IEEE802.11b High Rate (HR) wireless standard was adopted (11 Mbps). The college would blanket the campus with this new technology.

Wireless connectivity would allow the students to roam the campus while still maintaining access to the network, to the Internet, and to network software.

But how do you address the functional shortcomings of a CE device? The software available for the CE operating system is limited in number and power.

Instead, we chose to move to server-based computing, employing Microsoft’s Terminal Server for Windows with Citrix MetaFrame with the software in the College’s computer labs installed on this server. Because the CE device supports the Citrix Independent Computing Architecture (ICA), it is a natural thin client to use with MetaFrame.

To conduct a pilot program, the staff selected the HP Jornada 820 and installed a wireless network on the top floor of its Residence Hall and in a workspace used by its network and PC technicians.

In November 1999, KiZAN Technologies (now Panurgy Mid-America), a local Microsoft solution provider, donated time to install a test server, running a beta copy of Windows 2000 and MetaFrame. Initial software applications included Office 2000, Visual Studio Pro, Project, Internet Explorer, Adobe Acrobat Reader, and Oracle client tools.

Getting the three technologies—CE device, high-speed wireless, and MetaFrame—to work together was a snap. The system ran flawlessly and quickly, even over the wireless connection.

In December, the college used 20 laptops and CE devices to simulate a classroom setting. Our objective was to “break the server” or “bog down the wireless network” if we could. We couldn’t. Performance continued to be brisk.

The only two slowdowns that we could perceive were some visual effects, such as dissolves and wipes, in PowerPoint and a file download taking an unusually long time. That file, by the way, was a 500- to 600-page technical manual in .pdf format. This took about two minutes to download when all the machines were attempting it at once.

We were also concerned about power consumption. The wireless network card consumes considerable power, substantially cutting into the normal 10-hour battery life of the Jornada.

But after more than two hours of intensive classroom simulation, the Jornada battery was at 58 percent. For a student’s normal school day—consisting of three hours of classes, accessing library reserves, checking e-mail, and cruising the Web—we thought the power level was sufficient.

MERLINwill be ready for freshmen entering school in the fall of 2000 and will be integrated into two interdisciplinary courses that are part of a new core liberal arts and sciences curriculum at the college.

MERLIN will solve a number of problems for the college. Classroom scheduling will be much more flexible because we will be able to have impromptu computer labs in any room on campus. The college will not have to give up precious general classroom space in order to install new computer labs. Yet the support issues of having more than 1,400 additional devices on the network will be minimized, thanks to the use of CE devices without moving parts and a single software load residing on the Terminal/MetaFrame server.

Mark Cain is the executive director of information services and support at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

While College of Mount St. Joseph has ambitious plans, we’re sure they’re not alone in setting up a wireless environment. Has your business taken similar steps to provide a wireless workplace? What are your wireless plans? Share them with TechRepublic. Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.