Beyond the Classroom
By Jeff Goldman, Thu Apr 10 12:45:00 GMT 2003

From the Harvard Medical School to a primary school in South Africa, wireless technology allows educators to reach students outside the traditional classroom setting.

Last fall, Washington, D.C.'s American University became the first true wireless campus by integrating its voice, data, and messaging systems into one campus-wide wireless network. And countless other universities worldwide are building similar networks on their campuses.

But wireless holds the promise of even greater mobility. Can educators make use of the technology to reach students off-campus and outside the classroom?

It's still early days for most people exploring mobility in education, but a few strong examples already exist. In locations as diverse as the Harvard Medical School and the township of Etwatwa, South Africa, a number of organizations are finding innovative ways to bring education to students beyond the classroom.

The Mobile Student

At a number of medical schools throughout the U.S., AvantGo and ArcStream Solutions have partnered to provide mobile education solutions that give students access on their PDAs to resources ranging from course materials to teacher evaluations.

Ojas Rege, AvantGo's Vice President of Product Management, says medical education is a perfect target for this kind of technology. "Medical students are inherently more mobile than other students," he said. "And whether they're doing rounds, checking drug interactions, or whatever it might be, the work they're doing requires a lot of information for them to do it right."

According to Andrew Robertson, ArcStream's Director of Technology, most medical schools are required to track students' movements while they're observing patients in the hospital. The U.S. Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education requires that all students see a specific number of patients with specific illnesses, and that information can be tracked on a PDA far more efficiently than on paper.

The same applies to surveys and evaluations. "Medical schools do a tremendous number of surveys," Robertson said. "We have a survey generation engine that allows any professor to build fairly complex evaluations and quizzes for students' handhelds. Harvard rolled out this solution and in the first six months they saved more than $150,000 simply on the cost of paper, reproduction, and transportation."

And AvantGo's Rege adds that this kind of opportunity is hardly limited to medical education. "Just think about what the role of computers was in education even fifteen years ago," Rege said. "Once people saw there was a way for them to improve the information flow to students, universities went gangbusters. The same thing's going to happen on the mobile side."

Farther Afield

Think there's nothing striking about the fact that the Harvard Medical School is using innovative technology? Bringing the same technology to the township of Etwatwa in South Africa is a little more remarkable. Driven by a desire to help in historically disadvantaged areas, a number of companies are using wireless to bring distance education to communities throughout Africa.

African Sky Communications uses satellite and wireless technology to support distance learning centers in South Africa. According to Jeffrey Stanger, the company's Vice President and Executive Director, African Sky's community development center at the Nelson Mandela Primary School in Etwatwa is a perfect example of the educational opportunities offered by the technology.

Though everybody starts at a basic level, Stanger says the potential is enormous. "We have to start everyone off with a basic computer literacy course: these people haven't seen a TV," he said. "We provide teacher training, because the teachers really don't have a lot of education themselves. But then we offer electrical engineering, accounting, all sorts of courses."

The other key focus of the community development centers is basic health education. "We focus on the women and children, because the women are the ones in the family that take care of health," Stanger said. "We provide education about AIDS and personal hygiene, as well as a database of different diseases."

Another company pursuing similar aims is Wireless Africa. According to CEO Anietie Ekanem, the company uses wireless technology to provide distance learning courses targeted at university students. "These are the first people to go out into the marketplace," Ekanem said. "The best way to serve them is to improve their educations, to get them into better paying jobs."

Ultimately, Ekanem's and Stanger's aims are no different from those of AvantGo and ArcStream: the empowerment of individuals through mobility. Even back at American University, where wireless access is limited to the campus itself, the same feeling exists.

Carl Whitman, the school's Executive Director for e-operations, says the technology itself holds huge promise. "Anyone who embraces the full scope of this technology can be more productive, able to adapt to the fast pace of change, and better prepared for the next generation of communication and technological advances that lie ahead," he said. "And they'll have more fun doing it."

It's Education Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility.

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.