May/June 2003 // Case Studies
Pedagogical Advantages of Ubiquitous Computing in a Wireless Environment
by Susana M. Sotillo
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Susana M. Sotillo "Pedagogical Advantages of Ubiquitous Computing in a Wireless Environment" The Technology Source, May/June 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In the spring 2001 semester, I designed and implemented a wireless pilot project at Montclair State University (MSU). The main objective of this project was to assist a group of five graduate students in applied linguistics with the task of writing and revising their research proposals and masters theses. Wireless computing was chosen because this technology transforms every wireless room into a flexible "computer lab," with students using their laptops to work on their own or in collaboration with others (sharing drafts, charts, and tables, for example). Since wireless networks allow for ubiquitous Internet computing, students can upload and download information from library databases, log chat discussions, send and receive e-mail, and do other things from any location that, typically, they could do only from home computers or a crowded computer lab.

I designed the project to reflect constructivist pedagogy an approach to teaching and learning that is based on students' active participation in problem-solving tasks or in projects that encourage critical thinking (Exhibit 1). Learners engaged in pedagogical activities that they find relevant and challenging are "constructing" their own knowledge by testing ideas and approaches based on their world knowledge and experiences (Crotty, n.d.). A key precept of constructivism is situated learning, which presumes that most learning is context-dependent, is based on a social negotiation of knowledge, and requires collaboration in problem-solving tasks (Conway, 1997).

In the wireless project at MSU, the five participants applied their prior knowledge and skills to a new situation?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe process of revising and reconstructing texts collaboratively. Thus, they integrated new knowledge gained from the collaborative writing and revising process with pre-existing intellectual constructs. This article describes how the wireless-enabled laptop became a key component in the creation of a mobile learning and teaching environment that encouraged collaboration in the construction of knowledge.

Wireless Networks and the Construction of Flexible, Collaborative Learning Environments

Staff members in the Office of Information Technology (OIT) had installed wireless access points at appropriate locations on the first and third floors of our classroom building, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as in the library, the student cafeteria, and other campus buildings at MSU. My project used this technology and conferencing software to create a flexible learning environment that transcended the limitations of the traditional, teacher-centered classroom. A key component of this learning initiative was the use of portable laptops that enabled students to access the Internet from various locations and initiate student-led collaborative writing sessions. Since most of the graduate students were busy during the day teaching high school and elementary school, the most effective way of approaching these writing tasks was to incorporate collaborative and constructivist learning models that encourage team work.

The five graduate students who volunteered for this experiment—Jackie, Robert, Norma, Dana, and Julie—were loaned Pentium III, CPX, Dell Latitude laptops with 120 MB of RAM and a 20-GB hard drive. Jutta, a teaching assistant for German and English as a second language courses, joined the group on an informal basis and shared a laptop with another student. The computers were equipped with wireless cards and standard Microsoft software. An undergraduate student with considerable technical expertise taught everyone how to use NetMeeting, a real-time conferencing tool, and Word editing tools to keep track of changes made to each of the shared documents.

The project participants met online for 2 hours each week, usually on Wednesdays in the late afternoon, for a period of 16 weeks (February through May 2001). Each student-writer was responsible for hosting a session via NetMeeting, which offered the options of real-time audio, document sharing, keyboard chat, and whiteboard interaction. Because ubiquitous computing does not confine users to a traditional classroom, computer lab, or dorm, the graduate students were free to choose their own learning environments. Three of the students opted to work in the Linguistics seminar room while the rest operated from other locations (e.g., the library or student lounge). Collectively, the group members revised written documents, transferred tables and charts, and conducted research online.

As the course instructor, I became an active collaborator and co-learner throughout these sessions but did not dominate the discussions or learning process. As the students became more comfortable with the software, they began to create a cohesive learning community or community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991)—in this case, one centered on academic prose. Through the process of scaffolding, less experienced group members acquired expertise in academic writing by appropriating the form and style of the more experienced writers, Jutta and Norma (Exhibit 2). These two provided finely tuned feedback as the entire group progressed through the various stages of revising and restructuring academic texts (Exhibit 3).

Benefits of Wireless Technology

In the past decade, mobile computing and communications devices have become essential tools in business environments and higher education institutions (Exhibit 4). It is now routine for business travelers and educators to carry mobile computers, mobile phones, and personal data assistants that allow them to collect data anywhere—whether in a conference room, a classroom, or a car. In the MSU pilot project, wireless-enabled laptops and real-time conferencing allowed students in various locations to meet online so that they could exchange constructive feedback with a critical audience of their peers and instructor (Exhibit 5). Some group members were present in the same room, but those at a distance could just as easily request control of the board, ask for clarification of terms, or make written suggestions about part of a shared document.

This project became a student-centered, collaborative enterprise with the professor assuming the role of mentor or "guide on the side." Although the graduate students often chose to work collaboratively on campus (since they had to attend classes and could easily access the library databases), the group was able to meet and communicate anywhere and at the most convenient time. None of these activities would have been possible within the confines of the traditional classroom or computer lab; the truly unique feature of this learning activity was the fact that students were in different locations on campus, yet worked together through wireless connectivity. They could send and receive e-mail messages, engage in real-time document collaboration, exchange graphics, and transfer files. Their success confirms experiences at other institutions like Dartmouth College, where students have enjoyed the flexibility and convenience of campus-wide wireless access for 2 years now (Syllabus, 2002).

The students agreed on two major benefits of the project: Ubiquitous access to the Internet increased their productivity, and the use of laptops and conferencing software facilitated meaningful negotiations and the provision of editorial input during the writing and revising process (Exhibit 6). The fact that the students could access and verify information online—more readily than if they had to search for it in a print journal—boosted their efficiency. They could cite relevant information quickly and continue working on their drafts. Moreover, wireless network access to the Internet increased students' mobility because it allowed them to carry their laptops around and host or join working sessions via NetMeeting.

A cohesive wireless learning community formed in which the members collectively and productively constructed knowledge. At the conclusion of 16 weeks, Robert and Norma had finished writing their research proposals. Dana, Jackie, and Julie had restructured, revised, and successfully completed their masters theses.

Challenges of Wireless Networking

Boerner (2002) recommends that campus leaders seriously consider wireless local area networks (WLANs) when upgrading their technological infrastructure; he notes that wireless computing options can increase social and academic communication among faculty and students. For institutions that are contemplating such a transition, network organization standards created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) may be of interest. (See Exhibit 7 for an overview of the two variations of the IEEE Project 802.11 standards.) Although Boerner's suggestion is attractive, recent funding cuts in many states may preclude the implementation of wireless pedagogical practices on college campuses that depend on state funding to purchase technological equipment and upgrades. The cost of a wireless card for a laptop or personal desk assistant (PDA) may also be prohibitive for many students.

With respect to software, NetMeeting has its own limitations as a conferencing tool. Though the MSU graduate students were able to use NetMeeting successfully after one or two sessions of individualized instruction, technical problems persisted for some. We used the chat tool to communicate with each other and transfer files using standard text messages, but we were unable to use the talk feature with more than two individuals simultaneously. We also experienced voice distortion and echoing when participating in an audio conference. Although NetMeeting is versatile and ideal software for a small group of 6 to 7 individuals working collaboratively, it becomes unwieldy with 10 or more participants. Finally, training instructors and students to use conferencing software may involve juggling schedules to find convenient meeting times.


Wireless-enabled laptops make it possible for students to use their time more efficiently, access databases and information from the Internet, and work collaboratively. Using conferencing software and portable laptops, the participants in this pilot project were able not only to electronically store documents and data and retrieve them instantaneously, but also to successfully engage in document-sharing and collaborative writing from various locations on campus. Through this flexible learning approach, the students succeeded in selectively incorporating critical input from their peers and instructor, then revising their documents based on their own interpretation of facts and theory.

New developments in wireless networking and computing will facilitate the implementation of pedagogical practices that are congruent with a constructivist educational philosophy. Such learning practices incorporate higher-order skills like problem-solving, reasoning, and reflection. The creation of a mobile learning environment through wireless computing also has implications for other educational contexts such as law schools, teacher training universities, nursing schools, and medical institutions.

In summary, the advantages of wireless computing in education are ubiquity, portability, and flexibility for collaborative learning projects. Computer power everywhere and all the time means the ability—and the challenge—to integrate computers into every aspect of teaching, learning, and research. This represents a Copernican revolution in instruction, with the professor as guide and mentor rather than "fount of knowledge" or ultimate classroom authority.


Boerner, G. L. (2002). The brave new world of wireless technologies: A primer for educators. Syllabus, 16(3), 19-31. Retrieved March 14, 2003, from

Conway, J. (1997, May). Educational technology's effect on models of instruction. Retrieved March 14, 2003, from

Crotty, T. (n.d.). Constructivist theory unites distance learning and teacher education. Retrieved March 14, 2003, from

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (Eds.). (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Syllabus. (2002). Campus-wide wireless: Mobility and convergence: An interview with Lawrence M. Levine. Syllabus, 16(3), 14-18. Retrieved March 14, 2003, from

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