Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Wireless wonder slow to connect for Mount St. Joe students

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kristi Luehrmann works with a Merlin computer during writing class.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        Merlin brought the magic of wireless computing to the College of Mount St. Joseph. And stumbled.

        Merlin stands for MEdia Rich Learning INfrastructure.

        It went into service in August when all 370 freshmen received 2 1/2-pound NEC portable computers and the Mount took a seat at the tiny roundtable of colleges using the technology to connect students and teachers.

        In the same nanosecond, an honors study group can connect, a student can take a quiz and a professor can critique the first draft of a paper.

        However, Merlin initially was too much and too little of a good thing. Enthusiastic students and creative faculty overwhelmed Merlin's central computer and software.

        Merlin is most aggravating when it overloads and decides to “throw you off” in the middle of an assignment, said Jackie Gering, 18, of Springfield Township.

        Some bugs have been worked out. Merlin now is adequate for homework but when everyone in a large class signs on, the system slows and sometimes crashes.

        “It will be months before the sting of that goes away,” said Mark Cain, the executive director of information services and support who summoned Merlin to the Delhi campus. “When you are on the cutting edge, sometimes you bleed a little.”

        As he spoke, freshmen sitting in classes or lounges or stretched out on manicured lawns connected by wireless portables to professors and each other or called up materials created by faculty to supplement traditional talk-and-chalk lectures.

        For instance, honors student Lucas Smith, 19, of Fort Wayne, Ind., posted his proposal for a paper on Job and John Hersey's Hiroshima. He wrote:

        “Both of these readings reflect on how innocent people had disasters happen in their life. The situation was out of their control but they had to deal with it and the stories give accounts of how different people deal with loss and suffering.”

        Within two hours — and days before the essay was due — Alan deCourcy, an associate professor of religion, used Merlin to respond:

        “Yes, Lucas, but what about HOW they responded to it? That seems to be where the real power of the stories lie. Alan.”

        Such intimacy and immediacy developed quickly as Merlin insinuated itself into teachers' and students' campus lives.

        Merlin was born of necessity. The Mount opted for wireless portables rather than stealing vi tal classrooms for labs with wired, stationary computers. Within four years, the college will have spent $2.5 million to complete Merlin with up to 100 transceivers on which campus wireless connections depend.

        Beginning with this year's freshmen, every student will pay a technology fee every semester to cover Merlin's expenses.

        This year it is $250 and when they graduate, students keep the machine. Upperclassmen can tap into Merlin for fees based on time remaining at the Mount.

        Now, Mr. Cain is tweaking hardware and software so Merlin can handle up to 1,000 simultaneous demands without hiccuping.

        Role models are rare, he added, with fewer than 1 percent of the more than 3,000 colleges using wireless computing and even fewer going whole-campus as is the Mount.

        Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, an associate professor of English, has embraced Merlin with enthusiasm and caution.

        It's “a tool, not an end,” she warned, and it is most valuable after class as a supplement to lectures.

        Part of the honors teaching team with Dr. deCourcy, she doesn't wait for office hours to critique student essays. Instead, she, too, requires early posting of proposals on a special Web site.

        The $900 NEC portables run four to eight hours on a battery charge. Off campus and beyond the wireless connection, they can't connect with Merlin.

        That's coming once Mr. Cain develops adequate programs to protect the system from unauthorized intrusions.

        On campus, the wireless connection provides sophisticated software, greater memory and other assets of the central computer.

        This allows the Mount to use light, cheap portables without delicate, costly hard drives.

        This is central to the comparatively low technology fee.

        Reliability is the focus of mixed reactions from Merlin users.

        “It's not good enough for cutting-edge technology,” Amber Robinson, 18, of Mount Healthy, judged. However, “It will be easier next year when all of the kinks are out.”

        On the other hand, Steve Cruse, 18, of Harrison, said his portable is “great when I'm on campus” and he even takes quizzes through Merlin.

        Amanda Henning, 18, of Marysville, Ohio, praised Merlin for its role in her small honors study group.

        “You don't have to get the group together,” she said, because classmates can communicate by wireless portables. “It's easier because we all have these crazy schedules.”


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