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UWRF examines issues of transition to wireless

May 8, 2008

Student Senate voted in favor of an Information and Instructional Technology Council (IITC) plan to form a task force to determine the best strategy for UW-River Falls’ transition from traditional stationary labs to wireless labs that move with the students. However, a lot of issues need to be resolved before a final plan can be implemented.

“Whether we want to do it or not, that’s question number one,” Hossein Najafi, computer science professor and chair of the IITC, said.

Budget and space limitations, as well as students’ access to wireless computer devices, namely laptops, led the IITC to suggest that UWRF stop investing money in permanent labs and become a “Wireless-Portable-Computing Campus.”

The four new labs requested in the 2007-2008 school year would have cost over $250,000 to set up and an additional $29,500 to maintain each year, excluding the cost of upgrades typically done every five years, Najafi said.

Additionally, the space to add new computer labs is limited, and existing labs are not always an efficient use of space.

“These labs are sometimes 100 percent used … but there are some hours where there are two or three people in there,” Lisa Wheeler, IITC vice-chair, said.

More than 68 percent of UWRF students in the 2006-2007 school year who responded to a technology use survey said they owned laptops, but limited power sources and software that can only be used on lab computers make laptop use in the classrooms an infeasible solution right now.

“We felt like today, students who have laptops have the burden of not being able to use their technology to the full extent,” Najafi said.

New lab additions have been frozen until the IITC can work out a plan that addresses these primary issues.

If the resolution is approved by the Faculty Senate, the IITC will name a task force to start developing specific solutions that best fit UWRF.

One of the task force’s responsibilities will be to develop a “financial plan for establishing and supporting the program,” according to the resolution.

Rooms would need to be rewired to allow the use of laptops in more places around campus, in a way that will accommodate a whole campus of laptop users. Other updates yet to be determined may require additional financial investment.

One critical issue will be figuring out the financial impact on the individual student, Wheeler said.

A laptop may be too expensive for some students to purchase. The University would have to implement some system of ensuring every student has access to the mode of wireless technology being used in the classrooms, though a specific solution will not be decided on until the task force offers its recommendations.

The task force will also face the challenge of working out a system for licensing necessary software programs and loading them onto each wireless device so every student can access them, Wheeler said.

Biology professor and IITC member Brad Mogen said finding a way to keep students who may be distracted by e-mails or Facebook on task is another issue that will have to be resolved.

“That’s one of the concerns that we actually have is students showing up and not actually being engaged,” Mogen said.

Some students who do not currently own wireless technology may worry that they will be forced to buy a laptop and then find that the teachers are not incorporating them into the curriculum anyway, Mogen said.

For this reason, the task force will organize faculty development programs to help professors better incorporate wireless technology into their lessons.

“Faculty teaching faculty is what’s going to happen,” Mogen said.

Wheeler said that one other reservation students voiced was the potential for theft that could arise in a wireless campus.

“If there’s a laptop in every cubbyhole [outside of Riverside Commons], that’s going to be a security issue,” Wheeler said.

Item five on the list of task force duties concerns developing a plan for dealing with such security issues.

“None of these [challenges] are insurmountable,” Wheeler said.

Despite the potential drawbacks, laptops and other wireless technology allow students immediate access to information during class sessions and make group work in places outside of labs possible.

“I guess the way I see it … the lab will be anywhere you want to go, anywhere you feel comfortable in,” Michael Bell, a student member of the IITC, said.

Computer science and information systems major Michael Hovestol, also a student member of the IITC, said he originally opposed the idea of UWRF going wireless because he worried that upgrades would cost UWRF, and in turn students, a lot of money, and that teachers would not have the incentive to incorporate wireless technology into their classrooms.

Then, Hovestol saw that the IITC’s final resolution addressed these issues, and he got on board with the plan, he said.

“I think that it has some huge benefits on campus, and obviously wireless is the future,” Hovestol said.