Welcome to the world of wireless connectivity. Wireless access adds value to mobility. The focus is off technology and on content and learning. Easy e-mail collaboration and Internet access from anywhere on campus mean more motivated and engaged students.
In an era of tightly stretched education budgets, the ability to leverage existing infrastructure investments is critical. As many schools are discovering, a wireless network adds value to the wired backbone:
Voice over IP for classrooms that cannot afford phones
Access control and student identification for campus safety
Constant Web connection for collaboration and communication.
Wireless networks offer inexpensive connectivity; they can be redeployed when classroom configurations change, and they are inherently scalable.
Most schools have found a three-tiered plan easiest to implement. First, the site must have a robust wired infrastructure. Next, the wireless layer is installed while faculty and staff receive their notebook computers and learn how to use them as teaching tools. For Emily Craft, staff development coordinator at Randolph School, this step was easy. "The only thing teachers had to learn was to insert and remove the wireless card in their notebooks," she says. "The wireless technology was transparent." Finally, the students receive their notebook computers.
In 1996, administrators at Randolph School began to examine ways to incorporate technology into the curriculum of classes. After two and a half years of study and planning, the school provided faculty members with mobile computers and training so they could hone their technical skills.
By 1999, Randolph was ready to install a wireless infrastructure across the entire campus. As technology coordinator Jeff Ritter explains, "The teachers were the drivers behind the wireless implementation. After visiting another school, we realized that there was no way we would ever do wires. Just walking across the classroom was a chore. That wasn't what we were looking for." Symbol Technologies did a site survey in the spring, and installed the wireless network in two days during the summer.
With a wireless network in place, the next step called for mobile carts that included laptops with wireless LAN interface cards. "We used these carts for the higher grades as a pilot program so teachers could ease into managing laptops in the classrooms, and parents could see what their kids could do with the technology," Ritter says.
New Configurations and Collaborations
The carts were such a success that they are now being used in Randolph's lower grades. Students in grades 8 to 12 will have their own wireless notebooks for this entire academic year. Catherine Dunar, a Latin and Spanish teacher, is looking forward to having her students participate in a collaborative program between high school and university students—something they could not do without ready access to their laptops.
Active Teaching and Learning Environments
The wireless program at Randolph has achieved the goal of improving the learning environment for everyone. Students look at information cooperatively and apply critical thinking skills. As fourth-grade teacher Shelley Harriman says, "Now I can work at my desk and my students can bring their laptops to me if they have questions. Wireless access gives all of us the power of mobile computing."
New Tools for Teachers
Teachers are discovering that wireless access can help them approach their work more creatively. "Our teaching staff has found hundreds of ways to incorporate laptops; they've become another tool that helps us present information in a more compelling way," notes Betsy Allen, an eighth-grade history teacher. Staff development coordinator Emily Craft adds, "Our wireless network is seamless and invisible—a very liberating experience."
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Highly regarded for its liberal arts programs, Wake Forest University started its mobile computing program in 1996. All entering freshmen received laptops at that time. Two years later, they received new models. Now all 4,000 undergraduates at Wake Forest have laptops that are upgraded every two years. Wake Forest University was on the path to a wireless network as soon as it rolled out its mobile computing program. With the students already owning laptops, the next logical step was to provide real-time connectivity.
Time for Wireless Access
For some time, Wake Forest CIO Jay Dominick was intrigued by the possibilities of mobile computing at his school. So when high-speed wireless data transfer became feasible and cost-effective as a result of the industry's adoption of the IEEE 802.11 standard, Dominick knew it was time to act. He and his colleagues promptly laid plans for a wireless network pilot program at Wake Forest.
To determine which areas of the 340-acre campus should have wireless access, Dominick consulted Thomas Roslak, director of higher education marketing for wireless provider Symbol Technologies, Inc.
"We recognized that a wireless layer would add the most value where students eat, study and congregate," Roslak says. "So for the pilot program we decided to provide coverage in dining halls, libraries, quads, and student unions." Based on the positive results of the two-month pilot program, Wake Forest chose to expand its wireless initiative.
Students Like to Be Mobile
Today, over half of the school's first-year students, all equipped with laptops, subscribe to the university's new wireless services, which provide high-speed access to the Web as well as the campus network. The wireless package includes wireless LAN interface cards for the laptops. With the wireless services, student subscribers research their assignments online, download coursework, check e-mail and access the campus network unencumbered by cables, connectors or library hours. "Students like to be mobile," Dominick says. "Wireless technology allows studying to take place outside of traditional learning areas. Now a bench in the quad or a table in the dining hall can be a learning environment."
Ryan Scholl, a computer science major, agrees. He worked for the physics department chair one semester, filming classroom demonstrations for Physics 110. "With wireless access, I could edit films wherever I was, rather than having to sit in the physics lab," Scholl says. "It was so efficient."
Students are enthusiastic. "What I like most about wireless technology is the convenience," says Ryan Scholl, a senior at Wake Forest. "Even though our campus is hard-wired, there are places where you can't run a cord. And being able to bring your laptop to your books in the stacks or look up a fact when you need it is just great." Gordon McCray, a professor of information systems at Wake Forest, notes, "What is emerging at Wake Forest is a highly interactive environment based on our IT infrastructure. You don't have to leave a voice mail, and you don't have to stop by someone's office in order to interact. The more interaction, the greater the learning."
Flexible Learning Environments
"Being able to enhance communication among students and faculty is a great plus," Dominick reports. "And having voice over IP and wireless messaging more than justifies the investment in the wireless infrastructure." With a quarter of the student body participating, the wireless network already has provided more benefits than originally anticipated. Imagine the possibilities when the entire student body is connected—wirelessly.
Now, Wake Forest plans to expand its wireless services to higher-level classes. Because the wireless network is flexible and scalable, there is no limit to the number of students who can use it. This expandability will come in handy, because demand for wireless access is projected to grow at a rapid clip.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why should our school go wireless?
Wireless computing makes sense for any campus at which mobility can add value to a laptop program. Even if mobility is not yet a primary concern, wireless access is the logical choice for sites where the cost of wiring is prohibitive because of building construction, layout, asbestos issues or portable classrooms.
Do schools and universities have similar wireless programs?
There is no difference in the physical network. However, schools generally use wireless laptop programs to deliver curriculum. Universities use wireless laptops to extend class time. Professors and students can communicate during the week and research pertinent topics while devoting class time to the discussion of their findings.
How long does it typically take to install a wireless network?
Compared to a wired network, it takes a fraction of the time. At the Randolph School, after the site survey was complete, installation took only two days. Installing a wired network with similar coverage would have taken at least two months.
What if our campus expands?
According to Thomas Roslak, director of higher education marketing at Symbol Technologies, "The benefit to wireless is that it's easy to expand and redeploy assets that you already have." Wireless also is cost-effective for schools that are adding portable buildings or transferring students among various classrooms.
How is bandwidth shared?
Load balancing ensures a fair share of bandwidth for all users. No hogging is allowed. In robust wireless networks, the cells (each of which has its own radio transmitter/receiver) are monitored continuously, and, when necessary, users are automatically signed onto new cells to optimize bandwidth.
What bandwidth can we expect?
The volume of data that can be transmitted over a wireless network using the IEEE 802.11 standard is about 11 megabits. This works out to more than 128KB per second per user, which is equal to more than 50 phone calls coming in at the same time.
How long can the distance between wireless network access points stretch without interruption?
That depends on site topography and the distance between the two network endpoints. In the 100- to 1,000-foot range, the radio waves are strong enough that they can penetrate some obstacles. At distances of greater than 1,000 feet, a line-of-sight may be required for a point-to-point network. With proper design, users should experience a seamless roam from one cell to the next.
Are there compatibility issues with respect to the wired local area network (LAN) backbone?
No. A well-designed wireless network is compatible with the existing wired LAN. This includes traditional LANs that link computers and peripheral devices as part of a short-distance data communications network, as well as more robust LANs that allow users to access databases and programs running on client servers.
How is security addressed?
The first layer of protection is the network I.D., which must be input before access to the system is allowed. In addition, encryption and authentication features protect data as it is transmitted and protect the network from unauthorized users. For protection of student records, it is possible to limit access to the server with access control lists (ACLs).