Ball State’s ‘Digital Middletown’ Project Explores Wireless Broadband Initiatives


The fabled middletown Studies, conducted by Robert and Helen Lynd in the 1920s and ’30s, established Muncie, Ind., as the most studied city in America. Since then, technological initiatives such as the wireless broadband effort at Ball State University have established the Midwestern institution as a leader in cutting-edge innovations. It’s not surprising, then, that the university, which was founded in Muncie in 1899, has merged the two efforts not only to develop technology that will benefit students, faculty and Indiana residents, but also to study its sociological impact.

Effectively continuing the Lynds’ efforts on a digital scale, as well as taking a page from the studies establishing Muncie as Middletown, U.S.A., Ball State created the Center for Media Design. This modern-day re-creation of the sociological test bed now serves as a research assessment and content development hub for digital media applications in education, industry and communities. It also serves as a bridge between ideas and the marketplace by testing prototypes before they are released to the public.

“Being based in the most studied city in America makes our center a perfect location for testing content and products, and crafting real-life solutions for challenges society faces in mastering new digital technologies,” says David Ferguson, director of the Center for Media Design. “We want our research to span the breadth of society, collecting data from people living, working, playing and learning.”

Ball State University is looking for new ways to utilize technology such as e-books. Teachers are currently using e-books to encourage children to read, while the university's theater department has employed them in lieu of programs for its plays.

Leapfrogging Into Broadband

One project that the center will be contributing to, dubbed “Digital Middletown,” is exploring the potential of an ultrahigh-speed broadband network for on- and off-campus research and development. Through a federal grant, Ball State is testing a wireless network at two Indiana elementary schools, delivering broadband much faster than typical cable or DSL connections - at 30 Mbps compared to 3 Mbps. The project, which could become a national model for the application of high bandwidth in classrooms, is testing the educational impact of a range of multimedia content that is being delivered over the network to Cowan and Mitchell elementary schools.

Ball State’s Vice President for Information Technology O’Neal Smitherman thinks this joint approach will establish a digital education prototype for academic, government and industry leaders to follow. “Educational offerings might provide the first content for a community-wide network, but the high-speed access should also encourage researchers and entrepreneurs to develop new products, services and businesses,” Smitherman says. “Eventually, we hope the research and development test bed will prove that a high-speed commodity Internet is commercially viable and that we can take this technology to the most remote areas of Indiana, providing a platform for high-tech business development.”

To leapfrog headlong into broadband as the first step of a technological initiative could have been a journey doomed for failure, Smitherman adds. “We spent many years thinking about emerging technology and experimenting with it. As we have become proficient with many technologies, we knew we were ready to provide broadband access and develop content and purpose for the network.”

“Reality TV Bytes” and “The Brain” are two examples of content developed by Ball State and delivered via broadband. “Reality TV Bytes,” a live broadcast spoofing reality TV, consisted of three major elements: a live talk show, a broadcast TV program, and a Web site that allowed visitors to view and interact with the broadcast. “The Brain,” commercial software developed by Brain Technologies, uses text, video clips and Web sites to lead students through simulated case studies in social work, nursing, criminal justice and speech pathology.

Thanks to the creation of a secure wireless network, Ball State students and faculty can access the Internet anywhere on campus. The network can simultaneously handle 10,000 users from 30 buildings.

At the inaugural Billboard Digital Entertainment Awards, Ball State’s “The Brain” won Best Use of Technology for Educational Programming. One of two nominees from higher education, Ball State was the only university to win an award and the sole entrant nominated in three categories (“Reality TV Bytes” earned two nominations).

Unified Effort

Interdisciplinary cooperation among information technology staff, the Center for Media Design, and researchers in all seven of Ball State’s colleges fostered an environment that could make the broadband initiative work. To lay the groundwork for broadband, there had to be a community open to technological experimentation - one that could explore and overcome its glitches, viewing them as temporary setbacks rather than apocalyptic barriers.

Creating a culture that embraces technology and incorporates it into daily use has been key to the university’s successful technological efforts. For instance, IT personnel maintain the infrastructure that Ball State used to strike out on the wireless broadband frontier. Professors develop digital media, incorporating it into their daily lesson plans and partnering with outside corporations to create new software. In addition, students armed with laptops, PDAs and multipurpose cell phones cannot only access and analyze information quicker than any generation before them, but they can also work with professors to create new media for these infant technologies.

Students have come to expect that technology such as PowerPoint presentations, CD-ROMs and Web-based materials should be part of their education. Since the world is producing2 billion gigabytes of new information each year, college classrooms should be equipped to tap into this powerful flow of data.


Ball State began wiring its classrooms eight years ago, hooking up high-tech consoles that allow access to the Internet, DVDs, videos, etc. Converting the rooms into e-classrooms took seven years to complete. However, that level of connectivity is not limited to classrooms. Two years ago, the university completed an on-campus wireless network - one that is secure and capable of handling 10,000 users simultaneously. To secure the network, Ball State collaborated with Avnet Enterprise Solutions and Bluesocket to install and administer six Bluesocket Wireless Gateways. The end result is a wireless environment that is accessible without being too intrusive. Users can log on in the quad or in the coffee shop. And once connected, they have the option to encrypt their transmissions or not, allowing students and faculty to communicate with few limitations.

Improving access of data via e-mail and the Web, a recent upgrade increased the network’s speed from 11 Mbps to 54 Mbps. Forethought helped make the upgrade a simple process. Rather than require a total replacement of existing infrastructure like other wireless networks, Ball State’s upgrade involved installing internal cards in 350 wireless access points, or hubs, across campus.

These continual improvements in network and Internet access have helped expand the phrase “living off campus.” According to a Ball State study, faster speeds, improved quality and reliability, and an enhanced webcast capability are factors fueling the growth of distance learning. The growing acceptance of this technology, its cost savings and the convenience of distance learning will continue to boost enrollment in such classes. The study also pointed out that large classes with mass appeal would be prime candidates to be offered in this manner. There’s a good chance these classes may be better delivered via broadband in the future.

Virtual Field Trips

Ball State’s E3 Electronic Field Trips ( are another distance learning tool gaining popularity. In the last eight years, Mark Kornmann, outreach director for Ball State’s Teachers College, has produced more than 30 broadcasts. One broadcast, “Fastballs, Flips and Physics: Science on the Sandlot,” was viewed by more than 15 million students in 45 states. This interactive Internet and satellite broadcast explored the principles of physics through baseball. Viewers learned how Isaac Newton would have explained the motion of curveballs, how radar guns employ linear motion to determine the speed of fastballs, and how atmospheric conditions affect home runs.

“It’s exciting to reach so many students through this technology,” says Ozzie Smith, baseball Hall of Famer and host of the “Fastballs” field trip. “This Electronic Field Trip allowed classrooms to experience important lessons in science while also learning the history of our national pastime.”

Training Tomorrow’s Technology Leaders

Along with encouraging its faculty to incorporate advanced innovations into their curriculum, Ball State is training tomorrow’s teachers to become technology leaders. Students majoring in education are required to purchase laptops and employ them as one of their teaching tools. Students use the laptops to create digital portfolios - digital representations of students’ knowledge, ability and attitude toward teaching.

The laptops also allow students to plug into today’s increasingly modern classrooms. “Computers are as important to teachers as stethoscopes are to doctors,” says Matthew Stuve, assistant professor of educational technology. “And most teachers are leaving their stethoscopes behind in a computer lab.”

This requirement added a cost to students at the same time universities nationwide were raising their tuition. However, Roy Weaver, dean of the Teachers College, believes that graduating teachers who can step into today’s technologically advanced classrooms and incorporate all of the electronic media that is available to them justifies the requirement. “Providing technology leaders for schools must be a priority for all teacher preparation institutions,” Weaver says. “This is a vital commitment that we must make to our students and to school teachers, administrators, their students, their families and to community leaders.”

The laptop requirement is complemented by a new program designed to improve the technological proficiency of students majoring in education as well as the teaching professionals. The education technology program, which includes Indiana’s first computer education teaching license, has been designed to emphasize teaching first and technology second, says Stuve. “We’re trying to promote digital literacy. Most kids are aces at instant messaging but aren’t learning how to use computers to better understand science or mathematics. This program will help teachers harness students’ enthusiasm for technology and guide it in the classroom,” he says.

Infusing teaching with technology will allow teachers to act as translators between information technology and teaching staffs in their schools and districts. Bringing the two areas of expertise together will result in more effective instruction, according to Stuve.

Apart from the Teachers College, other colleges at Ball State are developing initiatives or have completed ones that explore the bounds of new technology. For instance, in the College of Architecture and Planning, a partnership with Intergraph Corp. resulted in a $4.7 million software licensing grant giving members of the Ball State community access to the latest geographic information system (GIS) software. GIS has many applications for professions managing spatially based information such as urban planning, geography, geology, biology, political science and marketing. The grant, coupled with a long-standing GIS lab located in the geography department, has given Ball State students an inside track on the growing industry. For example, urban planning students used it to inventory every house in one Indiana town, while another student project is documenting noise and air pollution near highways and interstates.

Upward Spiral

The College of Fine Arts along with the Center for Media Design are also developing new media and exploring the potential of digital arts. The “Digital Image and Sound Collaborative Urban Showcase” (DISCUS), which was performed at an art venue in downtown Indianapolis, entertained audiences with a blend of electronic art and music. Even the university’s newest building, the Music Instruction Building (MIB) which opened in September, is one of the most high-tech structures on campus.

MIB’s performance hall and rehearsal rooms are connected to a state-of-the-art digital recording studio. So, rather than toting bulky recording equipment to each venue, musicians can produce recordings or broadcasts with a flip of a switch. These endeavors blend technology with art and could reach another market segment via the broadband network.

Building the infrastructure for the wireless broadband network has created limitless possibilities; connecting initiatives around the campus that can create content for broadband is fueling interest in the new medium. Supporting both efforts has created a self-sustaining cycle of sorts - one that is multi-dimensional. “Creating the infrastructure started the process while creating content brings the effort full circle, but it d'esn’t come back to the exact point,” Smitherman concludes. “With each revolution, the infrastructure and the content improve, creating an upward spiral.”

Digital Storytelling: Capture, Converge & Create

In 2003, Ball State’s College of Communication, Information and Media (CCIM) created a master of arts degree in telecommunications with an emphasis on digital storytelling ( The goal of the program is to encourage students to explore the rich process of story creation for digital media. The two-year, 48-credit-hour program helps communications professionals hone interdisciplinary perspectives to produce and manage content for a variety of digital media. Graduates of the program gain:

• Proficiency in digital and convergence-based media design and production;

• An understanding of the nuances of narrative, substance and structure;

• An understanding of the functions of storytelling;

• Insight into the challenges, implications and ethics of storytelling; and

• Competent research skills.

Students in the program have access to a digital newsroom, the Center for Media Design, nonlinear digital video editing and postproduction equipment, high-definition digital filmmaking equipment, Dolby Digital audio production studios, and more.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.