College students have long been the first to jump on hot new technology: They swapped e-mails a decade before the Web went mainstream and toted MP3 players while everyone else plugged into sandwich-size Walkmans. What gives? For one, universities tend to make good test beds for nascent tech because they have excellent network infrastructures and aren't as focused on the bottom line as your average Fortune 500 company. "If you have a vision, you can take a risk," says Robert Lee, a foreign language instructor at California's Pasadena City College, and a devotee of new interactive whiteboards. This year, institutions from Dartmouth to Carnegie Mellon are betting that their latest investment in cutting-edge gadgetry will yield big dividends in the classroom. To wit, what better tool to rein in slackers than a new infrared buzzer that tallies attendance and keeps students perpetually on call for in-class pop quizzes? Less mean-spirited is new software that allows students to make free (if you don't count $40,000 for tuition) long-distance phone calls over the Internet, a technology now being co-opted for profit by big corporate players, such as AT&T. Here, we grade a few of the hottest new gadgets to hit campus.
Gadget: Smart Board rear-projection interactive whiteboard
What It Does: Users can write notes in electronic ink to save or post online.
How It Works: Digital cameras track the movement of fingers or pointers.
Where It Works: Carnegie Mellon, U. of Missouri, U. of Tenn., among others.
Real-World Apps: The board is becoming a popular prop among execs.
Grade: B+ Constant software upgrades necessitate frequent downloads; some complain that the 5-foot-wide screen is too small.
Gadget: EduCue Personal Response System (PRS)
What It Does: Student-held transmitters beam answers to the instructor.
How It Works: Infrared signals send name-coded data to a computer.
Where It Works: Devices are now required fare for some 5,800 UMass undergrads.
Real-World Apps: Some companies are now using PRS during meetings for instant feedback.
Grade: C+ Handy for big classes but too totalitarian for our liking; bright fluorescent lights sometimes interfere with the system's reception.
Gadget: Cisco IP SoftPhone software
What It Does: Allows users to make free long-distance calls over the Internet.
How It Works: Routes calls along wireless or joint data-phone (VoIP) networks.
Where It Works: Dartmouth gives all freshmen free Softphone downloads.
Real-World Apps: Cable and phone giants like AT&T now offer VoIP calling plans.
Grade: A The best thing since Napster 1.0. One possible snafu: Heavy SoftPhone use may interfere with other wireless network activity.
Gadget: Vocera Communications Wi-Fi badges
What It Does: Clip-on "badge" phones enable hands-free calling.
How It Works: The badge links to the VoIP network via Wi-Fi.
Where It Works: Dartmouth students can rent badges for $15/month.
Real-World Apps: Some stores, like Target, are now using Wi-Fi badges instead of walkie-talkies.
Grade: A- A dream come true for Trekkies. Downside: Calls can only be placed when the badge wearer is in range of Wi-Fi network.