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Active Campus Project: Evaluates Use of Technology to Improve Learning Experience

RESEARCHERS IN THE COMPUTER SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING DEPARTMENT (CSE) have launched an ambitious project called ActiveCampus to test whether wireless technology can be used to enrich the classroom —and campus—experience for students and professors alike.

"Undergraduate enrollment alone will soar by 10,000 over the next decade, and that growth can threaten the sense of community," says Professor Bill Griswold, who organized the ActiveCampus project. "We want to see if technology can enhance our 'culture of learning' and make the expanding campus seem somehow more intimate at the same time."

In January, Griswold distributed personal digital assistants (PDAs) to more than 400 freshmen in CSE as well as computer engineering majors from the Electrical and Computer Engineering department. The PDAs with wireless cards were donated by Hewlett-Packard, a gift worth approximately $480,000. When the students graduate, they get to keep the handheld devices.

While students are encouraged to use the Jornada's builtin features for everything from class scheduling to taking notes, new applications designed for ActiveCampus require that they connect wirelessly through a virtual Web hub (http://activecampus.ucsd.edu) that is accessed via the high-speed 802.11b WiFi wireless data network installed in key buildings around campus. (Eventually, this could be supplemented with Bluetooth access over shorter distances.)

ActiveClass

The first application up and running on the PDAs is called ActiveClass. Over 200 students in the two sections of lecturer Gary Gillespie's CSE 12 class (learning basic data structures and object-oriented design) have begun using ActiveClass on their PDAs. It allows students to ask questions electronically, and the entire class can vote on which others' questions they most want answered, and respond to teacher polls. "The devices only added to the classroom experience and to the education of students," said Gillespie after the first class. "The most surprising aspect was seeing students ask insightful questions that I don't recall ever being asked in prior classes. I was very pleased to answer these questions that hadn't occurred to me, and the result is that all students were able to benefit."

ActiveCampus Explorer

By the end of February, the experiment moves outside the classroom with a second application developed by Griswold and his researchers: ActiveCampus Explorer. "Our goal is to encourage chance interactions and discoveries around campus," Griswold told students while briefing them on the project. "We want ActiveCampus Explorer to point students back to opportunities in the physical world, not deeper into the PDA." Location sensing technology will allow students to pinpoint where friends are on campus, or get information about events or facilities nearby. Griswold is also encouraging 'digital graffitti' that can be placed on the site signed or unsigned. Eventually, information could be "pushed" to the PDA as it registers a student's location near an event. "Imagine walking past the Price Center and getting a message that a free concert is about to begin, or about a book-signing in Geisel Library," says Griswold. "Above all, we are anxious to see the questions that emerge from students as they use this technology. We expect them to think up new ways to reinforce community within the classroom, and campus-wide."

HP's major corporate sponsorship of the ActiveCampus project is complemented by others who are also providing support, including Symbol Technologies, MobilePlanet and Intel. Research partners include the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology [Cal-(IT)²] which is lending financial and administrative support; and ActiveWeb, an NSF-funded project led by CSE Professor Joseph Pasquale that is developing mobile agent technology to provide new Internet services, as well as enhance performance, security, and interoperability on multimedia-rich Internet.

Questions Raised: Impact of Technology on Classroom Dynamics

What is the best human-computer interface for facilitating classroom interaction? Will they pay more attention to the devices than to the lecturer? Will they spend more time surfing the Web than participating in class? Those are just some of the vexing questions facing researchers on the ActiveCampus project. "This living laboratory will allow us to do research on the impact this handheld wireless device has on the community, culture and education," says CSE's Bill Griswold.

To understand the sociological implications of the project, Griswold is bringing in social scientists to monitor the way students and professors use the new technology. After the initial "friendly test" with CSE and ECE's tech-savvy freshmen, the ActiveCampus project is slated to expand to include the entire inaugural freshman class of Sixth College next September.