A new kind of electronic appliance known as the Content Transformation Engine (CTE), from San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc., is designed to expand how standard web content can be served to a variety of computing devices, including handheld cellular phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Some educators believe that small, relatively inexpensive handheld computers are the future for “anytime, anywhere” learning. The CTE, as described by Cisco, could accelerate that trend by expanding the flexibility and utility of these handheld devices.

Until recently, school technologists have been faced with a problem: Existing educational content often does not transfer to a format that handhelds can display. Now, a device introduced Aug. 1 makes it easier for valuable web content in any format to be delivered to a variety of computing devices.

The Cisco CTE 1400 Series Content Transformation Engine is an appliance the size of a single rack unit server sitting on the network between client devices, such as phones or PDAs, and the content switches and caching devices containing data. The CTE 1400 supports up to 10,000 simultaneous users and 1,400 concurrent active sessions per unit, according to Cisco.

“The problem with delivering existing content to a mobile device is like trying to fill a paper cup with a fire hose,” Cisco officials wrote in a recent white paper on the new CTE device. “Because mobile devices have different memory sizes, image capabilities, and screen sizes, the problem becomes even more difficult.

“The best approach for solving the problem would be to dynamically modify the content for each device without changing the source content and incurring ongoing maintenance costs.”

That is exactly what CTE does, Cisco said.

The CTE appliance is designed to convert hypertext markup language (HTML) and extensible markup language (XML) data formats into a format that it appropriate for client devices with special display requirements. The Cisco CTE works within existing content networking infrastructures–such as caching devices–to extend content and applications to mobile computing devices.

“Positioned in front of the content, the CTE 1400 dynamically transforms existing content, in hardware, to suit the screen, graphic, and memory requirements of mobile devices, delivering content through the internet, intranets, and extranets,” Cisco said.

So far, the CTE 1400 has been piloted only in higher education, but the applications used there appear totally relevant to the K-12 field as well.

Stanford Law School in Palo Alto, Calif., has been a wireless campus for more than two years and is using the CTE 1400 to mobilize intranet and extranet applications.

Stanford Law recently upgraded its wireless network and started providing administrative and academic content to all wireless net-enabled devices–including PDAs, Pocket PCs, and IP phones–for faculty members and students.

The school now uses the CTE device to ensure that its students have access to its online law school information at any time, from any location, and on any client device. Mobilizing content such as class lists, programs, news, schedules, notes, contacts, and tests, the CTE provides Stanford Law’s faculty members and students with access to data previously reserved for networked computers.

“Stanford Law School is working toward a future where any data or service a student needs will be available from a wireless device,” said Mitch Davis, the university’s chief information officer. “The Cisco CTE made it possible for us to start delivering on that promise today, instead of in the future.”

The CTE can be deployed in enterprise and service-provider environments using existing HTML/XML content, Cisco said. After accepting requests from client devices, the CTE requests the content from back-end servers. The Cisco CTE functions as a reverse-proxy, acting as a web server to the client device and as a client device to the web server.

The appliance then transforms the content properly for each device type, sending only essential information formatted to fit the screen and memory requirements of the specific requesting device.

“There’s definitely an application for devices like this in the more advanced K-12 learning environment–particularly at the secondary level,” said Joel Conover, senior analyst at Current Analysis Inc. Conover said one example of how a school could use the CTE to move web data to handheld devices could be in the library.

“Someone could just sit down with their Palm or web-enabled cell phone and access library materials, books, and eBooks that are cataloged online,” he said.

The CTE is designed to work seamlessly with routers, switches, server load balancers, content engines, web servers, firewalls, virtual private network (VPN) solutions, and IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN products, Cisco said.

The appliance can be installed into any network infrastructure easily without requiring any changes to existing hardware or back-end software, Cisco said. The CTE 1400 supports major standards like HTML, XML, XSL, XSLT, XHTML, and WML. Using a Cisco application called CTE Design Studio, technologists define rules for how content will appear on a specific client device.

Once created, these transformation rules can be modified easily to suit other document types or devices, Cisco said. Users also benefit from the portability of the transformation rules, according to Cisco–the rules can be downloaded to multiple CTEs located anywhere in the network and will take effect immediately, allowing mobile devices to receive the transformed content on the next request.

List price for the Cisco Content Transformation Engine 1400 is $69,995.

“They aren’t cheap,” said Conover. “But there are formidable applications that could be delivered down to teachers and administrators so they could access grading content, discipline content, and things like that at any time.”

Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor who is a big advocate of handheld computing in schools, called the device “a super idea and … one of the pieces of the puzzle.”

“A lot of web sites use various techniques that are designed for desktop viewing, things like pop-up boxes and banners,” Soloway said. “There is no real translation [for this content] on a PDA screen. I’d say 60 [percent] to 70 percent of the content would be available for viewing on a PDA, and this tool can do that.”

But he noted that because of the device’s cost, most K-12 schools “are not going to go out and buy this immediately. Web surfing is not the predominant use of PDAs anyway, particularly since many PDAs are not wireless-enabled.”

There is also an internet service called Avantgo.com that reformats web sites at no cost, Soloway said, and “you can download [the reformatted sites] directly to your PDA. They do it on the fly, which is pretty cool.”

Links:

Cisco’s CTE device
http://www.cisco.com/warp/public/cc/pd/witc/cte1400/prodlit/wuw_wp.htm

Current Analysis Inc.
http://www.currentanalysis.com