There's a familiar lament that goes, "just when you've learned the answers, they change the questions." So, it seems, was the case with campus communications systems. Not too long ago, colleges and universities invested enormous sums of money to ensure that each dorm room had its own telephone line. The idea was that the schools would recoup the costs by earning revenue from long-distance calls made from the phones. And when a student might typically rack up $30 or more in long-distance charges per month, that was no small change.
But as cellular phones and calling plans became more affordable, many schools saw their landline revenue drying up. The University of Southern California, for example, reported recently that it had lost as much as 90 percent of the revenue it once earned from long-distance calls as more students arrived on campus with their own cell phones and affordable "friends and family" calling plans.
But rather than retreat to a corner to lick the wounds of lost revenue, some schools have begun exploring new ways to enhance wireless and cellular services to their advantage. Now, with leading edge security applications and learning tools, the telephone has become a far more sophisticated tool than Bell ever dreamed.
As if lost revenue weren't bad enough, many universities also found themselves losing touch with their students. Raju Rishi, chief operating officer of Rave Wireless, says many students don't provide the university with their personal cell phone numbers or use the voice mailboxes that are part of the campus PBX system. And, when a student opts to use a personal e-mail instead of the university-supplied account, the school doesn't have an effective means to contact the student.
"The universities began to recognize this, and some of them cut deals with cell carriers to provide cellular service," says Rishi. "The school gets a good discount on the student's behalf, plus a little commission for the arrangement. Many universities tried this arrangement--even insisting that the carriers put infrastructure in place like bidirectional amplifiers to boost the signal in the dorms--but they still didn't see the return, they didn't see the students buy the phones."
Although the phones had the same reliability and functionality, the student's home phone was still cheaper. "The answer is that schools have to offer cellular phone capabilities that students need," says Rishi. To that end, Rave has been working with telecom companies such as Nextel and Avaya to provide a set of mobile phone applications that tie the student back into the fabric of the university more aggressively.
One of the biggest issues for many universities is safety and security. Not only is it important to students currently living on campus, but it plays a big part in the decision of prospective students and their families. After the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the federal government mandated that all cellular phones include location awareness capabilities, such as a GPS (global positioning satellite) component.
In many states when someone dials 911 on a cell phone, it will contact the local 911 center and transmit the location data. "But those 911 centers are typically not campus based; they are often far away in the city environment, so the 911 center has to contact local police to handle the call. We can pick off that data and transmit it as part of a panic call," says Rishi. "We can transmit this same type of information to campus police. The user holds down a key on the phone and it transmits their location to campus police, along with their profile, including their name, a picture, a physical description, class schedule, any medical alerts, and so on. It's a much richer set of data that is being transmitted on a panic call. It's a very powerful application that universities can market directly to the parents of students."
Such applications make sense for a simple reason: Very few people walk out of their homes or dorm rooms without their cell phones. It's the one device that they always have charged and on their person.
Another safety feature in use at Montclair State University (N.J.) and a handful of other institutions is what Rishi calls a "guardian angel" application. "It might be late, and you are nervous about having to walk across campus. You don't necessarily want to call campus police for a ride or an escort, so you activate the feature for, say, 30 minutes, and the phone will 'breadcrumb' you for that length of time. If you deactivate it in that time, fine, but if you don't deactivate it, the phone will initiate a call to campus police and send that breadcrumb data, along with your profile and picture."
Universities can also reach out to students, especially during high-stress times, to assess their emotional state and offer counseling. For example, during the first weeks of school, when a new student often feels lonely and homesick, the school can send a stress quiz to students. "It might ask: 'How many hours are you sleeping?' 'Do you spend your time alone or with others?' 'Are you eating properly?'" says Rishi. "When you send your answers, it will say, for example, that you're in the 50 percent bracket. And if you want to talk to someone or get some counseling, you can just press a button and get connected directly."
Such early intervention can increase a school's capability to address the issues of dropouts and suicide. "That wellness element that is very important because you want to create an image of your university that is focused around the student," says Rishi, "because they are ultimately your customers and the reason that the university gets the benefits it does."
Because most cell phones have built-in browsers, Rave can access any web-enabled application, such as Blackboard or Banner, so students can get notes and interact with instructors just as they would on a PC. And, with transportation being such a vital part of campus life, another portal application lets users know where the buses are and when they should arrive.
"We also have portal channels that are student-created," says Rishi. "These can be either public or private. Someone might create, for example, a channel about fashion at Montclair State. That person can then set permissions so that only people at Montclair could see it, or only college students at other schools could see it, or anyone, anywhere would be permitted to see it."
After grades, one big reason a student chooses to stay at a particular school is the social atmosphere and the relationships he or she makes. The cellular application can also include a social dynamic element that helps foster these friendships. Because users create personal profiles, the location-based services make this feature very useful.
"If you're sitting in the campus commons, for example, you can choose to have the application know where you are, and you'll get, say, food coupons that are relevant to you, based on your interests and your location," says Rishi. "But you'll also be presented with a meet-up environment. The application will tell you of others nearby with similar interests whom you might want to meet. Then you can choose to text message an introduction to them."
At Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.), another type of campus communication project is under way. Known as myCampus, it is an attempt to take advantage of the instant connectivity offered by cellular phones and other mobile devices. It is an environment that supports "context aware agents" aimed at enhancing campus life.
"The campus is the perfect environment for this because it is a microcosm of everyday life," says Norman Sadeh, director of CMU's Mobile Commerce Lab. The idea behind myCampus is not to focus on developing amazing applications, but to develop the infrastructure that can facilitate them.
"Making the most of mobile communication requires overcoming the interoperability limitations of mobile devices, as well as recognizing the time-critical nature of many of the activities that mobile users engage in, whether it is looking for a nearby gas station or an ATM, or perhaps finding when the next flight home is going to leave," notes Sadeh. "Overcoming these challenges requires understanding the context in which the users operate and what the user is trying to accomplish."
The goal is to make context awareness practical by addressing three key challenges: interoperability, usability, and privacy.
Sadeh explains: "We use intelligent agents to see how we can most effectively reuse multiple sources of contextual information--calendar information, location information, and organizational information--using semantic web annotations. Different students may use different calendaring systems, for example. We've developed a way for the agent to extract the relevant information from each system."
The myCampus team also pays attention to usability issues, using HCI (human-computer interaction) methodology to see what makes the agents most useful. Although it is a small-scale project, involving no more than 25 students for each limited time project, there is no shortage of willing participants. "We use different students from different backgrounds, so we can get both a technology perspective, as well as a 'human' element from students," Sadeh says. "We have no problem getting students to enroll. When we announce the test of a new agent, within an hour we have more students than we can possibly use."
A semantic "e-wallet" technology attempts to reconcile privacy preferences and context awareness. Incoming queries about the user's location, calendar activities, and other preferences are all directed to the e-wallet. The e-wallet then attempts to understand each query, review the users' privacy preferences, and, if allowed, access the relevant information for the query.
"Privacy was the big concern," says Sadeh. "If we didn't address privacy, no one would use it. Providing for that functionality is the most significant thing we've done."
Many ideas for agents originate from students, who also do the bulk of programming.
One popular agent so far is called contextual message filtering. As students receive announcements about various campus events, the agent determines not only whether the announcement is of interest to the student, based on a static user profile, but it also checks the student's calendar to find the best time to deliver the announcement. If a student has indicated that he doesn't want to receive certain types of messages during a particular class time, the agent will wait until that class is over to deliver the message.
"Users don't necessarily want to be interrupted all the time," says Sadeh. "The agent knows your environment and learns your preferences over time. It will treat future events compared to what has happened in the past. That functionality is extremely useful."
Not all agents have been so well received, however. The biggest flop has been a concierge agent. In a school that has more than 20 dining locations, this agent that helped students decide where to eat seemed like a good idea. It took into account the time of day, the distance to the dining location, food preferences, meal budgets, how much time until the next class, and even the weather. "We thought we had something useful, but the students weren't impressed," Sadeh says. "After their freshman year, most students have developed their favorite places to eat."
Still, as various agents are developed and tested, Sadeh believes the implications are huge not only for campus life but for commercial adaptations. In fact, myCampus receives financial support from IBM, HP, Amazon.com, and the Boeing Corporation, among others.
"Companies are spending a lot of money to develop mobile technology; we see the potential for doing a lot more," he says.