No longer just toys for business managers or technophiles, personal digital assistants (PDAs) have found a niche in educational and municipal services.

Public sector pundits say the devices help save time and add flexibility.

At Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institute for Technology (NAIT),

for instance, accounting students are using PDAs to do coursework, check their marks and share information.

It’s part of a broader plan to use technology to help students and staff alike do their work, says NAIT president Sam Shaw.

“”The face of education is changing; our access to information is changing.””

Outfitted with Hewlett-Packard iPAQ Pocket PCs, the students are part of a research study in mobile learning between NAIT and Toronto’s Seneca College. Specially designed software lets them do coursework and chat with their counterparts in Ontario.

“”From a research design point of view, it gives you a comparison model,”” Shaw says.

The PDA project fits within NAIT’s 10-year plan to roll out cutting-edge technologies to improve the way students access and use the school’s resources. Planners are looking at implementing a range of hardware and services, including “”digitizing”” curriulum.

“”And that started getting us into the realm of wireless.””

One-stop-shopping

The idea is to provide students with a one-stop-shop approach to accessing all their academic and adminstrative information. With 10 different schools, some in different parts of the city, Shaw says the ability to provide “”ubiquitous”” information is a must. Currently, there are about 17,000 full-time and 45,000 part-time students at the institution, which offers diplomas and applied degrees in a range of fields, business, health and resource technologies.

The NAIT plan involves a decade-long partnership with Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Co. School planners sought out different companies to help fufill their mandate, and HP is the first to sign on.

“”We really wanted the best,”” Shaw says.

Under the agreement, which HP says is worth $40 million, the vendor will not only outfit NAIT with products, but will also help with training, applied research and testing new technologies.

It’s a unique form of partnership, says Ken LeBlanc, HP Canada’s district manager for Northern Alberta.

“”Essentially, we were the first strategic alliance that NAIT had entered into,”” he says.

“”They have a mission of using these alliances to enhance student learning.””

According to LeBlanc, NAIT called for “”expressions of interest”” from vendors, who in turn tried to pursuade the school they were the right firms for the job.

He says HP and NAIT share a “”common view”” and passion for creative uses of technology. That, and HP’s market position, helped cement the relationship.

Farther west, handheld devices could soon help speed up building inspections in Richmond, B.C. But the shape of that technology is still up in the air, says John Lindburg, the city’s IT dire

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