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Instructional Networks - Some Emerging Tools

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Many educational networks are in place to provide administrative reports and instructional content. To accommodate a growing student population expecting anywhere, anytime access to information, concern must center on how best to provide a flexible technology infrastructure. Ubiquitous access to online services that are available at all times has resulted in changes. Network ports are provided in study halls, labs, residence halls, rooms and throughout the institution to facilitate the teaching and learning process. Network infrastructure are allowing multiple devices to connect simultaneously to each other throughout the school, between buildings and throughout the community.

Most college and university faculty are using the Internet. According to a 2001 Market Data Retrieval Report titled "Technology in Education," more than 85 percent of schools provide Internet access in classrooms, and nearly half of the installed base of computers are in classrooms. The total estimated spending for technology in 2000-2001 was $5.53 billion or $117.50 per student - 67 percent for hardware, 20 percent for software and 14 percent for staff development. A large portion of monies also funds Internet initiatives at all levels of education, and in businesses to help manage the collection and distribution of information.

The "IT Spending Confidence Survey," from Gartner Inc. and SoundView Technology Group Inc., which surveyed 1,048 IT professionals, found that budgets for 2002 will rise 1.5 percent over 2001. Those surveyed said the following technologies would have a greater chance of being funded in 2002: security, storage, Web-based applications, PDAs and Web integration services. Areas less likely to receive funding include mainframe upgrades and contracted labor.

A number of new technologies using network capabilities are also in place in educational institutions, including wireless Internet access and thin clients.

Wireless Internet Access

Business is leading the way in using wireless. Wireless technology is used in almost every sector of our working environment to tap into existing networks. Campuses are also experiencing explosive growth of campuswide wireless networks. Cornell Uni-versity plans to have its 17 libraries, numerous study areas and residence halls covered by 120 access points, each to support approximately 30 students. Carnegie Mellon University has been operating without wires for over two years. More than 400 wireless access points are provided throughout its campus thanks to a $600,000 grant from Lucent Technologies.

Everyone can relate to the benefits of untethered network computing. For network managers, IT means the ability to instantly bring new users online without running cable or providing new switch ports. For users, IT means doing work on another floor, in or outside another building. Wireless LANs eliminate the cost of installing cable and wiring existing buildings. Wireless networks provide conventional LAN functionality without using wires, transmitting data via radio or infrared signals. Adapter cards help to send and receive signals through the air to access points plugged into the wired network at a hub or switch. Access points can communicate with 15-20 computers positioned from up to 10 miles away.

NetSchool's one-to-one system is based on wireless technology in which every student uses a wireless laptop to access the school LAN and the Internet. Mindsurf Networks installs a wireless network to provide handheld computers to teachers, students and administrators. In addition, the San Diego Lorenzo School district in California is implementing a $20 million e-learning program, making wireless networks available to every fourth- through 12th-grade student and teacher in the district's 15 schools.

Students and faculty have made the following comments regarding the use of wireless connectivity:

  • Cost benefits are an issue, since students usually have to pay for wireless.
  • Teachers teach differently, but students are questioning whether the changes are good enough.
  • Use of wireless has not increased enrollment.
  • Only a small percent can use wireless, since access points are not readily available.

But the advantages of wireless connectivity cannot be overlooked. Sharing of Internet access by students and staff through one controlled location is resulting in cost-effectiveness and better utilization. Wireless LANs are becoming more attractive as speed increases and prices drop, with most educators looking to wireless to supplement rather than replace a broader wired network. The growth of wireless computing has also initiated the Global Wireless Education Consortium (GWEC), a collaboration of wireless industry companies and academic institutions. GWEC is focused on expanding wireless technology in two- and four-year academic institutions.

Thin Clients

In the thin client computing environment, applications are moved to the server. A thin client computer has a minimal hardware set as most of the computational load is executed in the host computer, which provides space for applications and files. Many present generation clients are built with the display piece externally mounted behind or beneath a flat panel or CRT. The power required is readily available through the use of a small modular power supply. When a software or hardware upgrade is required, only the server needs to be upgraded. The instructor has the option of having students' computers display the host computer screen or work independently in the thin client environment. There are no removable disks, so students can not run disks that may have a virus. The network also meets the user's informational needs. The thin client connects over a network to a server where all processing and storage are accomplished. Thin clients are functional only when connected to a host server.

Other Goals

A storage area network (SAN) is a high-speed subnetwork of shared storage drivers, which are machines that contain nothing but a disk or disks for storing data. The pooling of physical storage from multiple network storage into what appears to be a single storage device, managed from a central console, is referred to as virtualization. Using virtualization, administrators can easily allocate as much or as little storage as desired to any application or user on the network.

Presentation technologies such as projectors, smart boards and digital cameras are increasingly used. Teachers often connect the projectors to multiple video computers - the display of content on the computer monitor and the projector simultaneously is considered an asset in teaching. Use of smart boards or interactive white boards is spreading, and the sale of digital cameras has increased tremendously.

Conclusions

Today, education buyers, particularly in the K-12 area, have budgets for technology, often supported by bond issues and other large-scale financing opportunities. As the Internet becomes more closely integrated into instruction, the amount of digital content shall multiply and the number of devices shall increase. The need for high-speed Internet access, including T1, T3, cable or satellite is growing. However, we must be aware of promising too much and overselling. The Internet is usually portrayed as having the possibility to communicate all over the world through a very high bandwidth. Access is still limited and cities do not have the local infrastructure to take advantage of high-speed Web connection. With so many new devices on the market - and more becoming available - we must listen to the learners and their concerns, because they are responsible for their own learning. Tools need to be highly flexible and adaptive to their learning needs and capabilities.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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