The University of Saskatchewan goes wireless

The University of Saskatchewan (U of S) and IBM Canada Ltd. announced earlier this week that they have teamed up in hopes of leveraging the school’s wireless network and offering its students more e-learning opportunities.

Although there are not yet any concrete details about the agreement, it will see the university and IBM partnering over the next five years. This will enable them to plan and implement solutions for students who are being encouraged to access the campus’ hotspots and new campus portal through wireless devices they bring to the university with them, as opposed to the school supplying the technology.

Rick Bunt, associate vice-president for information and communications technology at the university said he basically wants to advance and serve the needs of students that go to the campus with their own wireless devices and want to use these devices to support their learning.

“We are in an environment now for many students [where] their laptop is an essential part of their learning apparatus,” Bunt noted. “It’s like the clipboard was in my day. You wouldn’t go anywhere without your clipboard, now you wouldn’t go anywhere without your laptop.”

The U of S has been providing its students and faculty access to Wi-Fi hotspots for the past three years, which, Bunt said, the school plans to continue and add to in the future. He said his team has been closely working with the academic units to determine where the appropriate places would be to situate the new wireless access.

“We are a pretty spread out campus so we are moving towards what I call islands of connectivity as opposed to corridors of connectivity. We don’t see continuous connectivity over the campus but rather pockets of connectivity around classrooms or coffee shops or study halls,” Bunt added.

Although the partners are still working out the kinks of their agreement, Bunt said that with the union may come “some fairly good purchase incentives.”

The university hopes this agreement will make technology available at a much more affordable price to our campus community, Bunt noted.

“[This] will in turn contribute to the need to support this technology when it’s there. So, we see this as a way of leveraging interest into more opportunities for sales and then leveraging those sales into more needs to support and so on. We see this as a real symbiotic relationship for both of us,” Bunt said.

As part of its e-learning initiative, the university has recently launched a campus portal which the school is using to support courses and the delivery of different on line services including: access to library resources; fee payments; viewing exam schedules and grades; and ordering transcripts.

IBM and the U of S are not strangers, according to Bunt. They have worked together in the past on projects including the school’s student computing labs, the renewal of the school’s campus-computing network and on a number of large research projects.

Bunt said that although the U of S is very happy with its relationship with IBM, he pointed out that it is not an exclusive one.

“We are a very large and diverse campus and consolidating on a single vendor for something as personal as IT would be a very difficult proposition and we wouldn’t even hope to go into that direction,” Bunt said.

He added that one of the immediate concerns the university hopes IBM will attack quickly is the security challenges that come with having students use mobile devices that were not provided and monitored by the school.

“We can’t control what software is there or what use is made of [students] own personal devices…we don’t want to set up a police state but at the same time we have got to make sure that [the devices] are virus free and if they aren’t we want to do something about that immediately,” Bunt said.

There are many tools available on the market today to combat security issues, it’s just a matter of being disciplined enough to put them in place and getting people to use them, said John Kutcy, general manager of the education industry at IBM Canada.

Kutcy said that with every campus the company is working with, IBM is focused on security. Whether it be security access to information or avoiding viruses and other issues that can occur regardless of the type of work station, mobile or otherwise, he said that IBM plans to work with the school to put in place different measures to prevent security risks.

The U of S isn’t doing much in terms of organized activity, Kutcy pointed out, saying that in some schools there is a kind of managed mobile computing program where the institution buys laptops, for example, and charges the students a fee for their use. Although the university is not taking part in a program like this, it does encourage mobile computing on campus, he added.

“They have made some steps in terms of encouraging the direction and establishing some standards and of course they put the network infrastructure in place for the wireless capabilities, so it’s just a matter of building on that and deciding what more formalized and structured approaches they want to take [and] in what areas,” Kutcy added.

Over the past couple of years, Kutcy said he has seen a pattern within Canadian schools moving to a mobile and wireless environment. He said that with mobile technology in general, IBM has worked with about four dozen schools over the last eight years in Canada, whereas wireless started to take off about two years ago.

Although there are still some challenges in wireless computing, Kutcy said the technology has become viable since coming down in price.

“There are still some bandwidth restrictions, reasonably speaking, so even on campuses that are going broadly wireless like the University of Saskatchewan is planning to do, they are typically still maintaining a wired capability in the classroom,” Kutcy noted.

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