A new wireless laptop program at the University of Guelph promises to boost learning and productivity levels among a mobile-savvy student body now freed from stationary study carols.

The Ontario university has purchased 100

HP Compaq Evo N1000c notebook computers and made them available at the main library. Students can sign the laptops out for two-hour intervals just like a book. Users are free to roam anywhere throughout the building thanks to some 24 strategically-placed WiFi antennas, explains Michael Ridley, the school’s chief librarian.

“”The real thing that HP has enabled us to do is free the students. They get to decide how they want to work and the ways they want to work together.””

In doing so, the university is addressing the study habits that most students, and the wider population, already exhibit, said Ridley. Those habits are characterized by a natural tendency to work in groups and solve problems together. By contrast, stationary, private study carols do not encourage group learning and collaboration, he said.

“”(The notebook program) is a model where the computing resources and information resources simply follow you around. And that’s much more attuned to the way undergraduate students are thinking about their own learning and use of resources.””

Students who take advantage of the laptops are likely to retrieve their class materials online through one of the school’s many e-learning programs. They might also use it to e-mail other people involved in the course, or collaborate on a joint presentation or report. Walking down library aisles with a call number in your hand may be a thing of the past as students can now look up the location of a book from their laptop as they zero in on the right shelf.

“”It’s really what mobile technology is about: the ability for you to do things and be places with access to information that you never could access before,”” said Daniel Reo, product manager for notebook and tablet PCs for HP.

The university model can easily be applied to the business world, he added.

“”There is a lot of interest in businesses (installing hotspots) in meeting areas. For employees to go into a meeting and access information in the corporate network and on the Internet makes them all the more productive.””

With more mobile-savvy students entering university each year, there is a natural shift toward wireless networks, he added. Computer designers are responding by introducing wireless capability on entry-level laptops. Campuses are answering the call by “”lighting up”” high-traffic areas, said Reo. Leading the charge is the University of British Columbia, considered to be one of the most mobile-friendly campuses in North America.

The University of Guelph is no exception to this trend. Ridley said the school’s master plan includes the installation of hotspots in such areas as the university centre, on-campus cafes and the school’s other libraries. Lecture halls and seminar rooms may follow.

In the meantime, the library’s HP notebooks are constantly signed out, said Ridley, which means the school will inevitably buy more next year. Also under consideration is permitting students to take the laptops to classrooms to aid presentations. Library staff did consider installing RFID chips on each machine so they could be tracked. But as long as the computers are returned on time and unscathed, such measures will not be necessary, said Ridley.

The computers were purchased from a local HP supplier, Onward Computers Canada, for $290,000. The library’s WiFi hotspots and VPN secure network were installed for $60,000, a price tag that Ridley called very cost-effective. While the installation was relatively straightforward, library staff did not expect rows of books to be such a strong signal inhibiter, said Ridley. As a result, more hotspots were installed than originally planned.

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