Connected in the Country

Rural school districts find creative ways to link remote students with cyberspace.

AT THE FOOT OF THE WET MOUNTAINS approximately 30 miles southwest of Pueblo, Colo., sits Beulah School, one of the smallest, most rural outposts in Pueblo School District No. 70, the largest geographical school district in Colorado and the fourth largest in the country. Like four other remote schools in the district, Beulah is too far away to be linked with fiber-optic lines without a high price tag and too mountainous for microwave or high wireless connections.

The vast terrain separating these five schools makes wired and wireless connectivity difficult and expensive. But the Pueblo School District, like many other districts trying to connect rural schools, has come up with an innovative plan to bring fiber optics and wireless technology to the most remote students. What’s more, its vision reaches beyond mere connectivity to using MP3 players and handheld devices for learning.

Pueblo School District No. 70 and two other rural school districts, Maine’s Hermon School Department and Georgia’s Cherokee County, have come up with enterprising solutions for bringing wireless connectivity to remote students.

BRIDGING THE DISTANCE

When it comes to connectivity, “We’re limited in some senses due to distances between buildings,” says Shaun Kohl, director, Information Technology Services Center at Pueblo School District No. 70. Some buildings are more than 20 miles apart. “In order to provide high wireless access between long distances, you have to have some pretty beefy hardware to be able to push the signal that far,” he points out.

At Beulah School, Kohl opted for a frame relay network until fiber optics can reach the school by year’s end. A wireless-capable high school in remote Rye, Colo., helps nearby facilities get connected by setting up a wireless wide area network connection across the highway to an elementary school approximately half a mile away and to a nearby school bus garage. A 54-megabit per-second (Mb/sec) Proxim Tsunami point-to-point wireless Ethernet system connects the two schools, while an 11Mb/ sec Proxim ORiNOCO bridge system links the bus garage to the high school.

With Internet and wireless connectivity in place, the school district is experimenting with wireless notebook PCs for student and teacher development; MP3 and MPEG player deployment for viewing podcasts, with students checking out personal digital assistants (PDAs) from a media center or library; and using handheld devices for receiving and completing homework. Future plans call for accessing electronic textbooks through PDAs or wireless notebooks.

“Right now, it’s at an infant stage,” Kohl says. “We’re working out the bugs to [determine] what we need to train teachers on and how to train them.

“Ultimately, the idea would be that every student has a notebook PC or PDA,” he says. “We are starting the implementation of PDA use this summer and will begin checking out PDAs to students during the next school year.”

USING DONATED COMPUTERS

Approximately 10 minutes outside Bangor, Maine, the Hermon School Department’s three schools and 1,175 students benefit from broadband-fixed wireless connectivity that is locally funded. But that solved only part of the district’s need to link rural schools with the rest of the cyberworld.

The schools desperately needed reliable computers. Maine’s governor signed legislation to provide new notebook PCs for all seventh and eighth graders, but that left the majority of students out in the cold. So the Hermon School Department deployed open source Linux terminal services (LTS) on the campus network to give students and teachers a common high-performance desktop.

These desktop PCs aren’t new; they are older machines donated by area businesses and government agencies. Though the donated PCs arrive in good condition, they are considered obsolete in traditional terms, says Jeff Wheeler, Hermon’s director of information services and Hermon.net, a system hosted and operated by the school system that provides 24-hour-a-day Internet access to school employees, municipal employees and Hermon’s public. However, since the donated machines are being used as thin clients managed by a central server that provides high-speed functionality regardless of the end terminal being used, the age of the PCs is not a problem.

Some PCs contain a pre-execution (PXE) boot chip. “We simply plug them in [to the terminal server],” he explains. The PXE boot code finds the server, which sends back an operating system to load into its memory. Then it accesses the schools’ common desktop system.

For other PCs, the district installs network cards with Etherboot ROM chips. “Just about any PC can be connected efficiently using one of these two strategies,” Wheeler says.

Open source software plays a key role in this initiative. “Linux is critical because it is scalable and sustainable,” says Wheeler. “We can extend a high-performance Linux desktop everywhere without the immediate overhead” of new PCs and software licenses. By avoiding these costs, the Hermon School Department can focus its IT dollars on its centralized hardware.

The school district extended these services off campus to students’ homes over Hermon.net, the town’s fixed broadband wireless network, for $19.95, with dial-up services available without a fee. Students can access the school’s terminal services from their home PCs and can use the school’s applications and their own personal files while being protected by the network’s firewalls, content filtering and other security measures.

Open source wasn’t an easy sell. “People weren’t champing at the bit to use Linux on one of these terminals,” Wheeler says. So he demonstrated the terminals to the neediest students first, and favorable word of mouth spread to other classrooms.

Soon, administrators requested more Linux terminal servers in the schools’ media centers. Today, teachers with classroom space have a terminal cluster that all students can use to access their Linux desktop.

In addition to gaining support from students and teachers, the Linux terminals have cultivated a new mindset with users, Wheeler says. Since students can access the server from their classrooms and their homes, they think information should be available wherever they go — without having to carry a computer around with them.

OVERCROWDED IN CANTON

Cherokee County School District, in Canton, Ga., is a rural district with about 33,000 students in 36 schools spread across 564 square miles. School enrollment is growing 5 percent to 7 percent each year, and the influx of students has squeezed resources and forced some teachers to share classrooms.

Wireless connectivity has helped the schools cope with overcrowding. The district uses 802.x Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service Authentication in its environment and hardware providers.

With wireless in place, the district deployed 170 mobile notebook PC carts in schools throughout the district. Access points are located on each of these carts, and teachers plug in the access points as they move the carts to different learning areas.

Next, Cherokee provided access points throughout the high school and middle school campuses. “Wireless gives us flexibility and mobility,” says Bobby Blount, the Cherokee County School District’s director of technology services. “Instead of taking 20 students out of a classroom to the computer lab, we can bring wireless [notebook PC] carts to the students. Teachers are able to take advantage of spaces such as media centers, cafeterias, gymnasiums and even outside.”

“Wireless initiatives in our district — as are almost all of our technology initiatives — are funded by a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax,” he says. The final phase, contingent upon district funding, will be to provide full wireless coverage for the school district’s elementary schools.

Wireless “totally changes the education landscape,” Blount says. “The four walls of the classroom come down.”

Stacy Collett is a business and technology writer based in Chicago.

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF WIRELESS

Here are some ideas from Pueblo School District No. 70, Hermon School Department and Cherokee County School District that can help other schools make smart use of wireless technology:

Implement a wireless wide area network.

Provide wireless notebook PCs for student and teacher development.

Provide MP3 and MPEG players for viewing podcasts.

Allow students to check out personal digital assistants (PDAs) from a media center or library.

Let students use PDAs or wireless notebooks to receive and complete homework and access electronic textbooks.

Use older, donated machines as thin clients that are managed by a central server.

Purchase mobile PC carts for use throughout the district.

Lobby to obtain local funding for wireless initiatives.

Oct 31 2006

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