Oct 12 2006

Schools Share Positive Experiences About Their Wireless Labs

For schools, choosing the right wireless lab solution is critical for enhancing the learning experience, exposing children to cutting-edge technology, saving space and even cutting costs by consigning wiring expenses to distant memory.

The latest wireless labs, which have full network access and can be set up anywhere, typically consist of a cart to store notebooks, a mini-hub that connects the access point to the network and one or more wireless access points. So why are schools choosing wireless labs and what value does this technology add to the educational experience?

The Benjamin School

The Benjamin School, a K-12 school with more than 1,100 students in North Palm Beach, Florida, uses wireless technology in its library, classrooms and counseling office.

Next semester, Benjamin will make wireless carts an integral part of its technology strategy, thus underlining its reputation for being at the forefront of technology use in education. The school recently purchased two Toshiba wireless carts, with Toshiba Protégé 3500 Tablet PCs and a 3Com access point.

“We have it planned out pretty well,” says Dustin Durbin, Benjamin’s technology coordinator. “The idea is that wherever this cart goes, you simply plug it into the AC tower, then into one of the networks points on the wall. When it is powered and the notebooks are charged, there is full wireless connectivity in that location.”

The Tablet PCs cost approximately $2,000 each and the cart costs another $1,000. A 20-notebook implementation will cost the school about $45,000, including the cost of an access point.

“It’s a completely portable system,” Durbin explains. “You hand the notebooks out and when the kids have finished, they close them up, put them back on the cart to be charged and the cart can be wheeled to another classroom.”

Benjamin plans to use the carts in its eighth grade classrooms because its new campus—scheduled to open in 2005-will be entirely wireless.

“When they start in that facility, our ninth graders will have notebooks,” Durbin notes. “So, the eighth grade is where we are now testing the waters and getting the children accustomed to using the notebooks and tablets in a wireless classroom environment.” The school plans to have all its eighth-through twelfth-grade students using wireless technology by 2006.

The school also has plans for a wireless lab management package that will allow teachers to monitor what the children are doing on their computers, as well as broadcast content to the students’ screens.

“If a teacher is working on a problem, she can put it on everyone’s screen so that everyone is looking at the same thing,” Durbin says. “She can also lock screens so that if someone isn’t paying attention, she can have a message saying ‘Eyes front’ appear on the student’s screen.”

“Wireless technology can be deployed very quickly,” he continues. “The kids don’t have to be very technically proficient, they don’t have to hook up wires, they don’t have to know about connectivity. They don’t have to think how it works. It just works.”

Next semester will bring surprises for some students. “Not all our students know about the wireless carts yet, but those who do are very excited,” Durbin says. “Some teachers were initially a little hesitant about wireless technology. But when they saw the technology in operation and understood how it could be used to give an extra dimension to the learning experience, they changed their minds completely.”

He doesn’t believe that return on investment is something that can be measured solely in monetary terms.

“We believe that we have invested wisely,” Durbin adds. “We see great value in putting this kind of technology in our students’ hands. As long as it is planned out well, with good coverage and good security, wireless technology is valuable for all schools. I see a lot of schools moving to it in the future.”

Xavier High School

Xavier High School is a Catholic college preparatory boys school sponsored by the Brothers of Saint Francis Xavier. It has an enrollment of 900 students, faculty and staff.

Ivan Bailey, director of technology at Xavier High, has been at the school for almost three years. He manages the school’s IT operations, from systems administration and network design to equipment purchasing and IT policies development. He also teaches the school’s programming course.

The Middletown, Conn. school has three computer labs, one of which is completely wireless.

“We chose wireless for a number of reasons,” Bailey says. “We wanted to be able to reconfigure quickly. We wanted to provide access for connectivity in the classrooms and we wanted the students to have access to information and hardware.”

In one case, there were also aesthetic reasons. “The aesthetics of our library, which features beautiful, hand-carved wood designs, don’t lend themselves to your typical network drops, so we decided to use wireless instead,” he explains.

“With wireless, you don’t have to take down ceiling tiles, install fixed hardwired drops and use cumbersome desktop equipment,” Bailey adds. “It’s much easier to locate your access point, plug the access point into a switch and have users connect to your network access point, without the clutter of wires.”

Xavier ran a pilot program for one school semester to measure the efficacy of wireless technology in the classroom.

“We provided teachers with laptops, put wireless access points in, and gave them access to the school network,” Bailey says. “Based on the results of that pilot, we realized that the technology works really well and decided to deploy it to the rest of the school.”

All the feedback has been positive. “Wireless technology really complements and enhances the instruction. The students like the ability to go out and do research on their own,” he notes. “They are even demonstrating increased productivity in terms of the quality of their written projects. It’s absolutely fabulous.”

Xavier recently added six more wireless access points to provide additional coverage on its wireless network, and the school is in the final stages of evaluating the purchase of at least two wireless carts.

Milford Middle School

At Milford Middle School in Milford, New Hampshire, as at the Benjamin School, the mobility of the wireless labs is the most important attribute.

“I work in a middle school, grades five through eight, with more than 800 students,” explains Pamela Paquette, who teaches business and computers at Milford. “We chose a wireless lab to enable teachers and students to do Internet research, create reports and do their printing from anywhere in the classroom.”

Initiated in October 2002, the middle school’s wireless program is still in its infancy. The school purchased 12 notebooks, two wireless access points and a Toshiba wireless cart at a combined cost of around $15,000.

“The cart we purchased houses 12 notebooks, although it can house 25 for future growth,” Paquette says. “It provides physical storage and security, as well as a way to recharge notebook batteries. We deliver the cart directly to teachers so they can use the notebooks in their classrooms. It definitely puts more technology into the hands of our students. And because they are able to manipulate the technology on the cart themselves, students have hands-on experiences.”

To ensure security for its system, the school is planning to use a dedicated computer to act as a gatekeeper. This machine will work as a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server, firewall and mini-router and will travel with the wireless cart.

The wireless lab proved especially popular with a fifth grade class, which used it constantly over a four-day period to create a science project about the solar system.

“The students love it,” Paquette notes. “What excites them most is the ability to go online without having to hold onto wires. And the teachers think it’s wonderful too; they are just amazed that they can bring it into their classroom and use it right away.”

Analyst’s View

When asked about the key elements that education planners should consider in deploying technology at schools, William D. Rust, a research director with Gartner Inc., describes a triangle with outcome, curriculum and technology at each of the three points.

“This triangular relationship between outcome, curriculum and technology is important in determining the value of technology as part of an instructional system,” explains Rust, who spent 30 years in Baltimore County public schools as director of technology.

“Although all three relationships need to be examined, some people just see the technology aspect,” he adds. “In truth, everyone should be looking at the relationship between the outcome and the curriculum because if that’s not a solid connection, then no amount of technology is going to save it.”

He observes that technology should always be used to enhance instructional or administrative strategies.

“Too often people buy technology and sprinkle it around like a condiment, hoping that education will taste better,” he says. “When they do that, it seldom does.”

According to Rust, deploying technology without training teachers and administrators will add significantly to the total cost. Lack of training manifests itself in several ways including: improper or tangential use of the technology resources, increased downtime caused by user errors or failure to resolve routine problems with a subsequent loss of instructional time as problems are resolved, and stress on existing support resources that could be better used elsewhere.

“The better-case scenario is driven by instructional strategy,” he adds. “In this scenario, the technology that is selected can sit within the existing support structure and technical environment.”

Rust believes the primary benefit of wireless in general, and wireless carts in particular, is flexibility of deployment.

“Wireless carts give you the ability to take technology to where the action is,” he says. “Rather than having very prescribed ways of using technology, you are able to take the technology to where the action is, whether it is a classroom, a lab, or even outside. And you can see an immediate return on investment in an increase in the opportunities to learn, increased access to reference materials and more regular and accurate communication.”

Checklist for Wireless Implementation

• Does the technology support your instructional strategy?

• Have you reviewed several different models’ performance, cost and features to find the right one for your school?

• Have you completed a physical walkthrough of the site and experimented to discover the best position for your access points?

• Have you developed a comprehensive security strategy?

• Do your access points have adequate firewall protection?

• Have you considered a pilot program?

• Have you scheduled training time for teachers, students, and administrators?

• Do you know how the technology is going to be supported?

• Is your student network segregated from your administrative network?