STORM LAKE, IOWA
Standing forlorn outside his girlfriend's locked dormitory late one night, Kristopher Simon decides to call. With no phone nearby, he pulls his laptop computer out of a backpack and surfs to "dialpad.com."
A click on her number relays a radio command from a flickering wireless modem to a relay box in the dorm ceiling and into Buena Vista University's new wireless Internet server - which then shoots the request into the phone network.
Mr. Simon holds his laptop and its microphone up to his lips and speaks. "Hello?" answers a disembodied female voice.
It's just one small, spontaneous social event made possible by America's "first wireless community" in higher education.
Earlier this year, virtually every inch of this 60-acre campus was linked wirelessly to the Internet. Every student and faculty member was assigned a new laptop computer with wireless modem. Now, whether in class, lunchroom, or on the shores of nearby Storm Lake, students and faculty are hooked together - at a cost of $2,000 per laptop and $650,000 for the network.
"It's all part of what we're trying to be - the best new American college," says Kenneth Clipperton, managing director of Buena Vista information services. A "ubiquitous" computing environment will enable more and better learning, he says, while admitting that "a leap of faith" is involved.
Wireless-enabled laptops, combined with a wireless Internet network, hold the promise of transforming American higher education by giving all students instant Internet access wherever they are on campus, he and other advocates say. Students can also have ready and frequent interaction with their professors - not to mention the freedom to tap resources anytime, anywhere.
But not everyone is convinced the step is a good one. Along with quick access to academic resources comes the ability to play games constantly, surf the Web in class, and talk online to friends instead of seeing them face to face. Lost in the newly "instant" culture may be time for contemplation, or even unwired solitude.
A year ago, faculty members held a debate between "sprocketheads" and "Luddites," with one person smashing an old computer. Even some students are dubious, concerned about cost and the impact on academic life.
"Will we all turn into vegetables and become computer addicts?" asked a recent editorial in the campus paper. "Have we become noncreative, unthinking individuals who only want to be entertained?"
The jury's still out
Nearly 100 colleges and universities nationwide have "laptop initiatives," but only about three dozen make it mandatory for all undergraduates to have laptops, according to Ellen Chaffee, president of Mayville State University in North Dakota who tracks them.
Of the few true "laptop institutions," some have put parts of the campus on a wireless system. Only tiny Buena Vista University, with 1,250 students, seems to have gone all the way with wireless. Yahoo!, the Internet service, ranked it the nation's sixth "most wired" among its peers.
But will the wireless-Internet-laptop campus prove to be a revolution in learning - or just another high-tech fad?
"Wireless technology has a long way to mature before we see a widespread move by many campuses," says Brian Hawkins, president of EduCause, a Washington-based organization focused on technology in higher education. "How much outdoors computing do you really need?"
Mr. Hawkins says that his son "sits with his computer on a sculpture. Is that really the reason we're in the [education] business? What is the relative advantage?"
But junior Justin Isbell says there is one - several, actually. He lugs his seven-pound laptop, festooned with decals, to nearly all his classes. He takes notes on it, reads e-mail from professors and classmates, writes papers, and searches catalogs.
Sometimes he files homework from his dorm room at 2 a.m. He can play "Baldur's Gate," an adventure game, on it - or listen to music files. In a pinch, his laptop is the "next best thing to a cellphone," he says with a smile.
Even lunch doesn't stop students here. Social-work major Jennifer Jones, a senior, chats with friends present at the table -and those who are not - through a powerful instant-messaging program. You have to watch though, she warns. A laptop was sent for repair because a student spilled jello into the keyboard.
Leaving the lunch room, she has her open-and-running laptop cradled under one arm. Then, reaching across with her free hand, she responds to a message - while also walking and chatting with two friends. "I just find it easier to keep it on," she says. "I'm always prepared for class and I'm in touch, too. I love it."
What happens in class?
But where the controversy really flares is in debates about wireless computers' impact on the classroom. As expected, they have made classes more active - but not always in intended ways.
"Some were skeptical about whether this would be just another toy in students hands," says Todd Travaille, an assistant professor of writing. "But the level of use is astounding. You look around campus common areas, by the lake and in class - people are working on them."
He acknowledges that sometimes he suspects students in his class may be checking their e-mail rather than typing notes.
Indeed, in one business classroom, a lecturer expostulates about marketing while several students send e-mails and one surfs the Internet to the Smithsonian, where he spends the rest of class clicking on modern art.
But on a recent day, Mr. Travaille pops his laptop into a docking station and begins critiquing an essay by one of six students in the advanced writing class - projecting his computer document on an overhead screen. Students can also follow on their laptops.
"We can have this continual exchange," he says. "It means my classroom is more dynamic. Students can communicate with each other and collaborate in a way that's not time dependent."
Travaille's classes are all paperless. Students attach their assignments to an e-mail. Travaille opens it, makes comments, saves a copy, and sends it back.
Instant communication and working almost anywhere is a big part of the appeal. In fact, computer labs that used to be jammed are now deserted.
"It's really good to have the computer," says Aaron Mahr, a senior English major in Travaille's class. "I use it in almost all of my classes to take notes. I can sit at home or anywhere."
Still, he says, "I think because of it I don't see as many people as I used to - I talk with them online instead. Sometimes I feel I'm losing that personal touch."
He's uncertain about the impact on the quality of his schooling. "I don't know if I'm getting a better education," Mr. Mahr says. "It's costing a little more in tuition. I do know I'm more marketable in the workforce because I use a computer all day."
But there's a darker side, according to Ellen Larson, a senior majoring in philosophy and religion. She never had a computer of her own until this year. And she really likes it - up to a point.
"I've gone back to writing out notes because I feel more in sync with the class," she says. "In one class I sit next to people who surf the Web and send e-mail. You can see it as techno-doodling."
In that class, she says, everyone was solitary and "the screen was a barrier." Finally, the professor had everyone shut their laptops. As soon as they did, the discussion started, she says.
Sitting outside on a late-fall day, Greg Morris is teaching his social research statistics class. One of the last warm days of the year is mixed with academics, courtesy of the wireless network.
Flexibility and students with serious computing power at their fingertips are important to Morris. "It's one of the biggest reasons I decided to come here two years ago," he says. "It's the future."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society