Students swap notebooks for PDAs

25 Mar 2004

Students who don’t know each other well prefer to use bulletin boards and online forums to communicate with each other rather than more direct methods such as instant messaging and short messaging service (SMS). This is one of the early findings of a wireless pilot project that got underway last month at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT).

A group of 20 students — mainly consisting of class representatives from different courses to ensure a high level of diversity among the group — is taking part in the trial, which began on 9 February. The project involved installing a campus-wide wireless local area network or Wi-Fi network along with a customised set of software services, which include SMS, instant messaging, forum services and bulletins — all delivered through a web portal.

Students are no longer dependent on access to library and computer lab facilities to retrieve information and communicate with each other. The network allows participants to connect to the system and retrieve and share information from anywhere on the campus using personal digital assistants (PDAs) or desktop PCs.

The trial is being run by Next-generation wireless software services: Modelling And Developing usable applications (NOMAD), a research consortium comprising the Software Technology Research Centre (SToRC) at the Dundalk Institute of Technology, which managed the software development, the Telecommunications Software Systems Group (TSSG) of the Waterford Institute of Technology, which delivered the wireless network and system platform, and the IADT, whose researchers will undertake qualitative analysis of the results of the experiment.

Gerry Coleman, project manager of NOMAD and head of SToRC, claims the IADT network is the first campus-wide wireless network in the country. He says early feedback suggests “users like the devices and the idea of wireless networks”.

However, the project is not about technical gadgets, but to see if whether wireless communication can generate any ‘social capital’ among users. Social capital is a term used to describe the sense of belonging an individual has to a group.

“We are not purely interested in technological gadgets or short-term novelty value but in designing successful technology that can enhance people’s quality of life by fulfilling their needs,” says Dr John Greaney (pictured), lecturer in psychology at IADT, who saw the need to combine expertise in the study of human behaviour which advanced technology to create innovative software that people will be motivated to use.

The ability to communicate better has been seized upon by the students according to Mark McNally, final-year BSc student in Psychology Applied to IT. McNally explains students “are availing of such functions as the forums and SMS services to discuss relevant issues. The online forums are also enabling much greater levels of communication between different students, thanks to the fact that they do not require students to be in the one venue or even online at the one time.”

The project has received funding totalling E450k under the Technological Sector Research (TSR) Strand I and III research initiatives, a funding mechanism within the National Development Plan aimed exclusively at the Institutes of Technology.

According to Coleman, it is starting to become more common for research groups to work together on projects. “It is very hard to survive as an individual player anymore. If you ally yourself to a group that is successful — in this case the TSSG, which has built a national and international reputation — you have a better chance of survival. The reality is that funding follows funding.”

There are plans to extend the trial into a second phase involving students in Dundalk and Waterford as well as Dun Laoghaire. There will possibly also be an interim trial in September when students arrive at one or more of the colleges for induction week. Here, groups of first-year students would receive PDAs, allowing them to connect to the network and access a range of information about college life. The research would aim to discover whether or not technology could help new students find their feet in their new environment.

The NOMAD group also plans to introduce 3G handsets to the project later in the year when they become available. The research here will aim to discover, among other things, which 3G services are most useful to students. The project will also examine quality, reliability issues and usability factors for wireless and 3G services.

NOMAD is currently in discussions with O2 about the possibility of the network operator supporting the research through the supply of 3G handsets at a reduced price but no agreement had been reached at time of going to press.

By Brian Skelly