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Wireless, for better or worse

A year into campuswide networking at Saint Leo University, the Web brings teaching to new heights but also makes slacking off easier than ever.

[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Juniors Chrissy Deeb, right, and Kelcey Ogrodny and senior Frank Graceffc use their Macintosh iBooks, connected to a network, during a criminal justice class Friday at Saint Leo University.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002


ST. LEO -- On a screen behind him, criminology professor Terry Danner threw up a legal question on a digital slide for his Thursday morning Intro to Law class at Saint Leo University to answer: What is injunctive relief?

With a textbook in his lap that undoubtably had the definition in it, one of Danner's students punched "injunctive relief" into an Internet search engine he pulled up on his laptop computer.

Around the world and across the campus wireless network in a few milliseconds, there was the definition.

The lecture continued with some students keenly involved. Others were sending e-mail. Another was playing a game of pool at a Web site advertising candy.

Light speed involvement, and distraction, is the reason Danner's lecture class -- held in an auditorium that looks just like one countless thousands of college students have sat in at schools across the country -- is a classroom of the future on a campus of the future.

Saint Leo faculty members and students who live on campus -- about 850 in all -- get an Apple Macintosh iBook laptop. For the past year, each one of those laptops has been tied into the campus's wireless network.

Wireless technology available everywhere to everyone over fast and mobile laptop computing has started to revolutionize teaching and learning at Saint Leo. Danner's students can access a world of information about the topics he lectures on while he's lecturing. They can download his lecture notes, share case studies with each other, e-mail Danner to ask a question, and all in seconds.

Or they can play online pool.

Though the intent of pervasive networking is to revolutionize learning and teaching, it has also completely changed time-honored traditions like note passing. No longer do you have to whisper to your neighbor or pass a note. Instant messaging is free, fast and unlikely to be read by an offended instructor.

"You could daydream before," Danner said, shrugging about student attentions wandering during lectures. "Daydreaming has always been a part of college. This is a high-tech way of daydreaming."

Classes change with times

Danner and his students brush off the thought that the laptops and the wireless network have radically changed the way students interact with each other and with their professors, the ways professors teach and the ways students learn.

During the lecture, Danner said he would e-mail his notes around to everyone. Students didn't even twitter. Not two years ago, wireless transmission of notes was impossible. Ten years ago, e-mailing notes was unheard of.

"It makes it a lot easier," freshman Alibek Dagley said. "We still have to do a lot of book work.

"But it's one more gadget we have to learn how to use."

For both student and teacher.

More and more professors are using class Internet sites. But there's a limit to what they can do. In the sciences, with datasets and software abounding online, the Internet is a boon. To poetry, computers are an anathema.

In professor Rebekah Thomas' biology classes, she can show interactive presentations of cellular division or a video of the fertilization of an egg -- unimagineable when she got her doctorate in physiology.

"Scientists wouldn't deal with (the technology) if we didn't think it was cool, neat and helpful," Thomas said. "It's cool because you can see these processes we learn about in textbooks."

Thomas doesn't view instant messaging and in-class e-mail as inevitable; it's a challenge.

"I can't let them be idle," she said. "In science, I need them to be with me. If they lose me for even five seconds to send a message to someone, they've lost something."

Thomas said the important concepts are repeated until a light bulb goes off for a student, and the idea sets in.

"If there's instant messaging, the light bulb doesn't go off."

Connection catches on

The laptops and the network have been in place for a year. Each on-campus student gets one as part of room and board. Commuter students can lease them or check one out for the day.

The laptops all have the capability to access the wireless network. School technology officials scattered nearly 100 wireless hubs -- Apple calls them Airport stations -- around campus where people gather. There are two in the cafeteria, one in the coffee shop and one just about wherever people congregate. In the dorms, with thick walls that block the wireless signals, the rooms have wired connections to the network.

Other than open fields, and the tavern across State Road 52, the campus is completely connected. But that's changing.

"I didn't think anyone would want to be on the Internet while they were having a beer," Frank Mezzanini, vice president for business affairs, said with a laugh. "But they do."

The school signed a nondisclosure agreement with Apple, so how much Saint Leo spent on the system isn't known. Mezzanini said the system had started to change the way the school does business with students.

Students can now log onto the school's system, check their grades, register for classes and pay their bills. They no longer have to go to a bursar's office, stand in line to register or wait nervously at the mailbox for grades.

Mezzanini, a self-described "closet geek," is effusive about the future. With students, professors and the administration just learning how to take advantage of the network, more use is expected, he said.

"I wonder what it's going to be like in five years," Mezzanini mused. "I don't know. But I'm ready for it."

High-tech diversions

A sociology or psychology graduate student could have a field day at Saint Leo.

There's a fascinating paper just waiting to be written on how students have changed the computers' background screens -- commonly called wallpaper -- to fit their personalities.

Several men in Danner's class on Thursday had plenty of scantily clad models staring back at them. Some had wallpaper programs that would change digital babes every few minutes.

One had an image from a Lord of the Rings movie. Another had artwork. A woman had Buccaneers wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson on hers.

Another paper waiting to be written: classroom multitasking.

Even students using the laptop to take notes are multitasking. They are listening to the lecture, typing notes and often have the textbook nearby.

Most of the students in Danner's class were doing a lot more.

Dagley, sitting the back row, seamlessly flipped between an ongoing instant messaging conversation and a lengthy e-mail message he sent near the end of the lecture on his laptop and the lecture itself. Others were checking Web sites (including a fan site for the 1987 Nintendo game "Mike Tyson's Punchout"), while taking notes, sending e-mail and carrying on instant messaging conversations.

"Multitasking to you is inattention to me," Danner said. But in the past, students doodled. Now, Danner is encouraged when students use the Web to look up portions of the lecture.

"It teaches them to use the resources," he said.

-- Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com .

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