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Technology 'like the Enterprise'

LAWRENCEVILLE - The wall-mounted mechanical pencil sharpener, a mainstay of classrooms for decades, sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the new technology in one of Georgia Gwinnett College's new lecture halls.

Each seat in the classroom has ethernet ports and power outlets for hooking up laptop computers. Cameras on the back wall record the lecture for later viewing. Video equipment allows the professor to speak to more than one classroom at a time. And a digital projector shines computer and video feeds onto the wall where the blackboard should be.

"It's almost like the Enterprise," said Assistant Director of College Relations Demetrios Lambros.

Administrators envision Georgia Gwinnett as "The Campus of Tomorrow," a place that is not burdened by the weight of tradition and where innovation is the norm.

"We don't want to have comfort zones here," said Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Stan Preczewski.

Implementing new technology is a large part of creating the dynamic and free-form environment administrators are aiming for. In fact, a desire to stay on the cutting edge of technology is written directly into the school's mission statement.

Because the college is completely new - no building on campus is more than three years old - it has the luxury of outfitting itself with all-new equipment. And it plans on implementing features that have not been seen on any other campus in the country.

Cellular learning

College administrators around the country are searching for the best technology through which to reach students.

"Having students working together and forming learning communities an important part of the learning experience," Vice President for Educational Technology Lonnie Harvel said. "But that's been declining rapidly on many campuses. They come here the same way they go to the mall."

Harvel and other college administrators around the country think cell phones can be that universal platform. This fall students at GGC will be able to use their phones to answer surveys and receive messages from the school. In the future, phones could be used for reviewing video lectures and even finding books in the library. GGC is in the process of forming partnerships with phone company Sprint and software developer Rave Wireless to explore some of these possibilities.

Harvel hopes that by reaching out to students using technology they are already comfortable with - the cell phone - there will be increased interaction on campus.

"Successfully done, it will increase the amount of time students spend interacting with faculty," Harvel said.

Using software provided by the New York-based Rave Wireless, students and faculty can set up text messaging groups to communicate academic and social information. The school could send out a weather alert to all its students, or a student could ask for help from his entire psychology class.

A number of similar text messaging features have been implemented at other schools, such as Montclair State University in New Jersey or the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. But GGC is looking to push the envelope a little farther.

"We're going to be breaking some new ground with Lonnie (Harvel)," said Raju Rishi, Rave's chief operating officer.

For example, next year students may be able to tag certain parts of a video with their cell phone - like inserting digital bookmarks - and then review it later. Using the Global Positioning System technology standard in Sprint phones, students would be able to mark meeting spots for study groups.

"Academics have been involved since day one," Sprint Education Segment Manager Michael Flood said. "And I think that is going to make a lot of difference."

One application called Rave Guardian is a safety feature that also makes use of GPS technology. When students enter an area that feels unsafe, they can alert police to their location with a timed message. If the student does not cancel the message in a set period of time - for example, the length of a walk to the car - nearby authorities will be alerted.

Not all of Rave's applications require a Sprint phone, but some will make special use of Sprint's digital capabilities. Since Sprint will be the preferred cellular service provider for GGC, Sprint Education Account Manager for Georgia Robert Lacey said the company will ensure Sprint users will always have reception in and out of buildings on campus.

Expanding the classroom

Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Preczewski sees a lot of promise in working with Harvel on academic technologies.

"It's somebody who right away I trust," Preczewski said. "It's phenomenal."

He said Harvel's title - vice president of educational technology, not information technology - emphasizes the focus on academics.

"Too many places first buy tech and then figure out how to use it," Preczewski said. "(But at GGC) tech doesn't drive the curriculum." That way, he said, technology at GGC doesn't become "a bottomless pit."

Preczewski said students spend only 15 percent of their waking hours in a classroom.

"With technology you can expand that time," he said.

Harvel said one of the school's goals is to make learning materials available on a variety of platforms, allowing students to decide how best to digest the information. For example, a lecture transcript could be downloaded to a PDA, the video could be viewed on a computer or digital phone, or a recording could be listened to on an iPod.

Of course, Harvel said, it's important to avoid "cognitive overload" - giving students and faculty more technology than they need or can handle.

"If the students have too many gadgets they have to fiddle with, they lose sight of the lecture," he said.

In addition, students who want to avoid receiving messages from the school on their cell phone can opt out of Rave's program, Harvel said.

But he and other administrators hope the technology will not be seen as a burden, but as an opportunity.

"The future of education is interactive," Harvel said.