The wireless rollout at Buford City Schools in Georgia has sparked innovations by the IT and teaching staffs, say Technology Director Lori McCoy (left) and high school economics teacher Melissa Allen.

Jan 07 2009

School Districts Embrace Wireless Networks

IT directors discuss the economical and practical benefits of Wi-Fi.

School districts discover how economical and practical it can be to break free from wired networks.

There was no epiphany, no pivotal moment when Lori McCoy knew Buford City Schools needed to install a wireless network. “We just realized we needed it to stay up with the times. It’s the way the world works today,” says McCoy, director of technology for the Georgia school district.

It’s a common conclusion, according to Craig Mathias, founder of Farpoint Group, a wireless communication advisory firm in Ashland, Mass. He fields requests from rural and suburban districts as well as inner-city and private schools, all of which want to tap the advantages offered by wireless technology. “Notebook computers today come with Wi-Fi capabilities built in, so the client side is free,” he says. “Second, wireless networks have become just as powerful as wired ones in terms of throughput, but they’re a lot more flexible.”

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Just ask Melissa Allen, an economics teacher at Buford High School. Since connecting to the wireless world in 2005, she’s jazzed up classroom assignments using the course management system Moodle to quiz and survey her students and Hot Potatoes software to practice vocabulary. “When I say to students, ‘I’ve learned something new,’ they get excited because that means they get to learn on the computer in a different way,” she notes.

The creativity boost is definitely a driver, says Gus Sabogal, director of technology at Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, Fla. “The freedom with wireless was like night and day,” he says. “We became innovators.”

And Buford City’s McCoy says she’s now privy to a “secret” more schools are discovering each year: Wireless is not only affordable, it’s also a no-brainer to buy, install and maintain.

No Strings Attached

The first step Mathias suggests is for clients to sit down and determine which applications the district wants to mobilize, how many students will be using them, how often and what the data loads are. Contemporary wireless LANs may easily handle a variety of educational software packages in lab studies, but it’s always good to understand your data rates and your particular combination of applications.

Second, explore where you want wireless coverage in your school. Classrooms, libraries, administrative offices and auditoriums are crucial. “The gym, for example, is probably not a high priority, unless you have local reporters covering your basketball team regularly,” Mathias notes. Ditto for outdoor areas such as cafeteria patios — it’s possible to add these sections via wireless mesh networks.

Finally, determine who will serve as the network manager or administrator. Mathias recommends appointing a technically minded IT staff member willing to get up to speed on the management console. It’s straightforward, so folks with networking knowledge typically can pick up this niche from a manual, he says.

In Sabogal’s experience at Palmer Trinity, the planning stage took only a month for consultants to walk the square footage to determine ranges and sketch out access point placements that would avoid connectivity conflicts. For most schools, installation involves little more than screwing access points into the wall over the course of a few evenings.

Even so, run a pilot or test-drive the network before going live, suggests Michael N. Lee, network administrator and CIO for Putnam Valley (N.Y.) Central School District. He says he learned a valuable lesson during his rollout: test, and retest.

“With 1,500 wireless users daily, you can’t imagine the stress that places on a network,” Lee says. “In a corporate environment, users sign on in the morning and sign off at the end of the day. Here, all 1,500 laptops sign off every 50 minutes at the end of class and then sign back on five minutes later.

“The last thing you want is the technology to hinder the teachers’ ability. Any lag in the system is unacceptable.”

Look, No Prep!

District administrators and consultants insist the IT department shouldn’t sweat bringing teachers and students up to speed on wireless capabilities. For a majority of users, the concept is familiar, the execution is ubiquitous, and training is unnecessary. At most, the staff needs to formalize a policy of acceptable use — for example, buying concert tickets online during school hours is off limits — and stress these rules with students and staff.

Like Lee’s surprise with peak demand cycles, McCoy discovered that pressure comes when making sure the network keeps up with the volume of new and innovative applications teachers dream up for their classrooms. Currently, Buford City classrooms use Mimio Interactive and student response devices, wireless tablets and notebook systems.

“So far, we haven’t had a problem, but I need to know when in the future to increase our bandwidth,” she points out. “Everything they do in the classroom depends on this wireless access.”

No Budget Crunch

An access point costs on average between $400 and $600, and if the school is wired, installation boils down to using existing hardware in the walls. Dysart Unified School District in Surprise, Ariz., placed two to three access points per hallway in its buildings to cover between eight and 10 classrooms, which adds up to roughly 20 points in the K–8 buildings and 40 in the high schools.

“Users don’t need to know which access point they are connected to. It just moves from AP to AP seamlessly,” says IT Director Evan Allred. He also chose a management system to control these access points and calls it the sane way to push out configuration updates and fine-tune any access points that need signal direction altered or strength increased.

He advises districts to include the cost for notebook batteries in their wireless budgets as well. The increased use of portable devices means most users will need replacement batteries every 18 to 24 months, and each notebook should have two batteries assigned — one in use, the other in the charger, Allred recommends.

The Buford City Board of Education doesn’t regret a single dime spent on its wireless project. In fact, McCoy says, the district was able to maximize infrastructure dollars through its ability to turn any classroom into a computer lab.

“It’s been an overwhelming excitement for our IT department to see the teachers really get involved and engaged in all the new technology that is out there,” she says. “That’s been the best surprise for us.”

Here’s to Your Health

When Craig Mathias of Farpoint Group attends a parent meeting on a district’s wireless plans, there’s one question he fields every time: Are these radio signals harmful to my child’s health?

Not according to information from the Federal Communications Commission, where studies have shown that the environmental levels of radiofrequency radiation energy the general public routinely encounters are typically far below levels necessary to produce significant heating and increased body temperature.

Information from the World Health Organization concurs. Its website states, “Considering the very low exposure levels and research results collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF [radio frequency] signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects.”

EdTech Quick Poll

How likely is your organization to deploy any (or additional) wireless technology in the next year?

  • 30% Somewhat likely
  • 20% Extremely likely
  • 20% Neutral
  • 20% Not very likely
  • 10% Not at all likely

Buford City Schools by the Numbers

  • 383,256 Estimated wireless coverage (in square feet)
  • $29.45 Per-student wireless cost breakdown
  • 600 Number of computers on the wireless system
  • 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Peak demand period

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