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Mobility in Action: Transforming Education at Purdue University with Pervasive Wireless Connectivity

November 9, 2009 - 5 Comments

A Chat with Purdue University’s CIO

Last week Cisco and Verizon took the wraps off their joint effort to help Purdue University deploy a pervasive, high-performance wireless network throughout the University’s 2,500-acre West Lafayette campus. Verizon Business is installing a Cisco Unified Wireless Network with more than 6,000 802.11n wireless access points, giving Purdue’s 51,000 students and faculty seamless mobile access to collaborative educational and research tools no matter where they are.

Shortly before the announcement, I spoke to Gerry McCartney, Vice President for Information Technology & CIO at the University, to get his perspective on the project and what it will mean for education at Purdue.

Dave Trowbridge: How do you define “pervasive connectivity” for education, and why is it important?

Gerry McCartney : In education, pervasive has to mean a lot more than just “available everywhere.” Of course, that’s a hard enough problem as it is. Students expect to connect anywhere, whether walking between classes or two floors down in a basement. That’s one reason the combination of 802.11n and next-generation cellular that Cisco and Verizon are giving us is so important. But pervasive also has to mean reliable—available all the time—and even more important, easy to use.

Once you’ve got those three fundamentals taken care of, you’re ready for the real job: transforming education, both instruction and discovery or research. Even in a leading institution like Purdue, a lot of what we do still involves a model that goes back to the Middle Ages: a faculty member standing in front of a room full of student and talking. Fifteen years back or so people thought giving students laptops would transform this model, but in the absence of pervasive connectivity all laptops were good for was taking notes, and you can do that with a pad of paper. But with pervasive connectivity, you can do things you can’t do with a pad of paper, and then you can really begin to expand beyond the old way of doing things.

DT: So pervasive connectivity is a starting point for educational transformation. How are you starting out at Purdue?

GM: This project both helps extend what we’ve been doing and is the foundation for new capabilities. For instance, for the past two years we’ve offered an educational application called Signals that’s making a big difference for student success. Like many educational institutions, Purdue offers a number of very large introductory classes, an environment that can be challenging to students who’ve coasted through less-competitive high schools and have no idea of the level of work needed to succeed. The problem is that they don’t find out they’re falling behind until their first graded assignment several weeks in, perhaps too late to withdraw without any impact on their academic record. And when they do get that “C,” a shocking event since they’ve never gotten a “C” before, they don’t know how to go about fixing things.

The Signals application applies some fairly complex algorithms based on student interaction with on-line study material and socio-metric information such as their educational background to deliver a kind of “educational traffic light:” literally red, yellow, green. Within a week or so of the start of class they can see how they’re doing, along with prescribed activities specific to the class for catching up if they need to. We’re already seeing a notable difference in withdrawal vs. failure rates due to Signals, and the new project will make Signals available on everything from laptops to dual-mode smartphones. We’ll also be licensing it for use by other institutions.

DT: Students come to Purdue already immersed in various social media such as Facebook and Twitter. How is Purdue leveraging that for education?

GM: Last week we launched a new application called HotSeat, which even more than Signals will leverage pervasive connectivity on campus. It makes possible two-way communication and a kind of multitasking in the classroom. Think of CNN Headline News, with traditional talking-heads news plus a ticker across the bottom and perhaps a secondary panel off to the side. You get multiple streams of information at different speeds and in different modalities so you can actually take them all in at once.

HotSeat works the same way with social media. For instance, it lets us use Twitter in a classroom situation so that students can simultaneously listen to the lecture, ask questions of a teaching assistant, and participate in a pop-quiz or question poll posted by the lecturer, who gets real-time feedback on his or her teaching effectiveness in the process. It’s really sort of subversive in a delightful way, taking technologies more often used for things like dating or spontaneous get-togethers, and applying them to learning. And it’s really something that’s not possible without pervasive connectivity.

DT: Looking out a couple of years, how do you see pervasive connectivity changing education, whether at Purdue or elsewhere.

GM: The most exciting thing I can say about that is that I don’t know. People talk glibly about unleashing innovation on campus through connectivity, and it turns out they mean letting students use their mobile phone to find out when a dorm washing machine is free. Well, my response is: “Oh. My. I’m. So. Excited.”

I’m not only not interested in that sort of thing, I’m actively resisting it. Students, and institutions for that matter, already have enough ways to waste time using technology. I don’t need to help them. What I’m looking for is what really can’t be predicted, tools that no one has thought of before that turn up because the pervasive connectivity is just there, taken for granted. It’s like the impact TV had on education. People thought it would be like The Jetsons: remote control education. No one predicted the History Channel, the Weather Channel, and yet now people know more about WWII or how weather works than ever before.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have some ideas. Think of it this way. A faculty member can reach 20,000 students by writing a book. At the other end is one-on-one teaching, which is impossibly expensive. What I’m looking to is how to use technology to mediate between those two extremes. Perhaps a hybrid combination of in-person and distance learning, tearing down the walls, making it easier to size the class appropriately. You don’t want 300 students for a capstone class any more than you want 15 students for an introduction to calculus. Why sit in a lecture hall with 500 other people? Can’t I do that just as well in my dorm room?  Pervasive connectivity, and the technologies it enables, will let us customize the educational experience and enrich the educational experience in ways that we can’t even imagine right now.

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  2. The application developers were part of Information Technology at Purdue's Informatics Group. This group is part of ITaP's Teaching and Learning Technologies area."

  3. Your data looks really impressive!Could you please share some info about application developers?

  4. Roman, thanks for your question. More than 7,000 students are using the Signals application. And, the collaborative Hotseat application was introduced to two classes late last month, but already 73% of the students, more than 600, are using it. (Just for a sense of scale: Purdue sees more than 10,000 wireless user connections each day.) Gerry did offer an anecdote that speaks to your other question. He spoke of an early Signals intervention just this semester where the student involved promptly wrote to the president of the university, saying “I got a yellow light and I want to assure you that I’m going to work harder and turn that into a green light.” Gerry said that had a big impact on the president, and he thinks it a good indication of the attention students pay to such applications: they're not a fringe benefit but core applications.

  5. Very interesting topic! One of the first truly innovative application of WLAN in education vertical!Do you have any statistics regarding application usage metrics by students? Are they actively involved in using new education approaches?