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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Wired in pursuit of higher learning

As universities head into the twenty-first century, students want to know which are doing the best job at ditching paper and joining the digital universe.

By David Akin
The Globe and Mail

The main floor at the University of Guelph’s McLaughlin Library was once crowded with tall shelves stuffed with journals, indexes, catalogues and other desiderata one finds in a top-flight research library. But that is all becoming a thing of the past.


In its place, there is a coffee shop and lots of comfortable places to sit. But the virtual equivalent of all of those indexes will still exist. A new high-speed wireless network is being activated this fall in the library - the main library on Guelph’s campus - through which students and faculty will be able to access all the reference material that once was on those paper indexes.


Students with a laptop and a special wireless network card - typically a $100 item that is now being sold as a standard feature with many laptop computers - can sit in those comfortable chairs, enjoy a cup of coffee and, through the magic of that wireless network, access the library’s catalogue, on-line journals, and a host of other electronic resources. Those students that don’t have wirelessly enabled laptops will be able to borrow one from the library.


But that’s not all that this new highly social and informal library environment will house. It will also be, for all intents and purposes, the tech support department for all of Guelph’s 16,000 students. Library staff will answer tech questions and conduct informal seminars about using some of this new computing and telecommunications infrastructure.


Alastair Summerlee, Guelph’s newly installed president, says the philosophy behind this project is to make sophisticated information technologies as natural to use for students as the telephone.


“It’s meant to be a one-stop shop for all of the technical information services set in the context of learning,” said Dr Summerlee. “I think that’s incredibly important. It then makes technology just a tool, in the same way as using a telephone or using a printer. It means those people who are a bit nervous about using technology have that kind of support in a slightly different context. You don’t have to go to a tech centre to get it.”


In fact, easily available and easy-to-use technical support was one of the chief differentiating factors among those schools that ranked high in the University Report Card survey when it comes to technology on campus.


The University of Guelph topped the rankings. The University of Western Ontario ranked second, followed by the University of Lethbridge, Queen’s University and Brock University.


“The IT [information technology] department really listens to students’ concerns, and it shows,” said a University of Western Ontario student.


At Guelph, Western, and elsewhere, the library is still the geographic and spiritual centre of academic life, but new technologies are extending the library’s reach and, in the process, transforming the physical structure itself.


“U of G has a fast network,” student Matthew Peachey said. “And online library services are amazing. I basically only had to go to the library to pick up books. Everything else can be done online.”


This fall, Guelph introduced a new on-line application that lets students register for classes and adjust class schedules via the Internet. Dr Summerlee said that before the fall semester started, 99 per cent of Guelph’s students had logged in from wherever they were around the world and selected their courses.


In fact, an increasing number of Canadian universities are moving any function that once required a student to stand in a long lineup on to the Web.


The University of Lethbridge, for example, has an on-line registration pilot program running and hopes to roll out the real thing next spring.


“The problem with technology always is that it’s a black hole for money. You have to be both imaginative and disciplined to make sure you get the value for it,” said Seamus O’Shea, vice-president, academic and research, at the University of Lethbridge. “We buy stuff that only meets national and international standards.”


At Guelph, the university will spend $15-million over the next three years overhauling its telecommunications network and another $20-million upgrading every desktop computer. Among other things, that money will buy a new VoIP telephone system: That’s Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, a geeky way of describing a phone system that uses the Internet rather than an old-fashioned line to carry voice calls and data traffic.


The benefit for users is that a phone number can follow a user around, from a residence room to lab to wherever there is a specially equipped computer.


As that system is rolled out, it will make it even easier for students to communicate with each other and for others - faculty, the university and parents - to communicate with students.


“Guelph has had quite a leadership position in technology,” Dr Summerlee said. “Our move to Voice-over-IP . . . will bring incredible advantages to faculty and students on campus in terms of distribution of data and access.”


Many students who participated in the URC survey also said it was a boon to have course material available on-line. Students at many schools can now log on to get course outlines and course materials. Instructors are also archiving old exams, answers to assignments, old lecture notes and other related material online.


At those schools that placed poorly in the technology on campus survey, students complained that even though some course material was on-line, it was often out-of-date or posted too late in the semester to be of much use.


One universal complaint, even from students at institutions that did well, was that there were not enough computers available for student use. The problem seemed to be worse, according to the survey, at those institutions that ranked lower in the category of technology on campus.


Inadequate computer resources were made worse at some institutions by outdated equipment and slow networks. “My journalism class was actually not able to have all of our students go on the same Web site at one time during a recent computer lab because the computers could not handle it,” said a student at Carleton University who requested that her name not be used.


Carleton ranked 34th in the country when it came to technology on campus. “We need new computers and more of them,” said Becky Hanna, a third-year psychology student at 38th-ranked Trent University. “Sometimes it takes me an hour to get on to a computer in the library.”



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