Wireless Laptops and Local Area Networks

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Wireless connectivity at St. Louis Community College allows students to experience hands-on interactive learning with laptop computers during library bibliographic, paralegal and biotechnology instruction sessions. The library at the Florissant Valley Campus of the St. Louis Community College began using wireless technology for bibliographic instruction during the spring 2000 semester. Because English Composition students require advanced instruction in bibliographic citation, library faculty members provide students with a combined lecture and hands-on interactive learning experience using wireless laptops. A wireless lab is now a part of the classroom in the library.

When paralegal and biotechnology instructors identified interactive learning needs, they requested the setup of a portable wireless lab. The college funded a $120,000 capital project that set up two 24-station labs and one 15-station lab. Each lab consists of hardware, software and a secure storage cabinet. Acer 501T laptop computers were purchased and installed with Lucent Technologies WaveLAN PC adapters. The wireless network uses WavePoint-II access points, which function as bridges between the college’s Ethernet backbone and the PC adapters. A gigabit connection runs between the buildings, and a 100mbs connection links the desktops on the Florissant Valley campus.

Prior to the use of wireless laptops, the library faculty at the Florissant Valley Campus of the St. Louis Community College used the traditional lecture method. Students were provided with the information necessary to navigate the library resources, but they were not grasping and applying search strategies. With the use of wireless laptops, library faculty members were able to provide an interactive hands-on environment that helped students apply learned techniques for their assignments. Thanks to the use of wireless computing, the students are motivated, and the English faculty is very satisfied with their students’ results.

Solution Implementation

Library faculty members on the Florissant Valley Campus were aware of wireless technology in the nineties, but it took some time for it to gain support. Over the years, a team of librarians and staff continued to investigate wireless technology. Near the end of the nineties, changing student needs and advances in technology provided an opportunity to change the library’s instructional delivery methods. Librarians wanted a hands-on instructional environment for students. The library director was successful in gaining support for wireless technology after promoting the idea repeatedly, and after collaborating with faculty, information technology personnel, computer technicians and college administrators. Wireless networking proved to be both affordable and the least disruptive to instruction. A physical evaluation of the library’s classroom revealed electrical and network limitations. The library director sought assistance from a number of sources to develop the wireless laptop network proposal that would improve learning opportunities for students.

Faculty Views

Janice Patton, one of the library faculty members at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, has used the wireless laptops in her instruction. She received an inquiry from the BI listserv and shared the following information.

“The library faculty started using wireless laptops during the spring semester. They weren’t ready until late in the semester, so they have only used them for a short period of time. The laptops each have a security strip to prevent them from being removed from the library without setting off a 3M security gate alarm. They are stored in a locking cart in the classroom. The cart is wired so that the laptops are always plugged into electrical outlets and recharge during storage. Students currently only use the wireless laptops for library bibliographic instruction. The librarians have discussed the possibility of using them for other purposes within the library, but not for students to check out.”

The library faculty teaching the class is responsible for setting up the laptops and returning them to the recharging cart. The campus computer technician recommended letting the laptop batteries run down once every two weeks to prolong the battery life. One of the weekend librarians has been designated to handle recharging.

We have identified a few problems thus far. The laptops would suddenly reboot during use. The technician said that this could be because the wireless access point is too far away from the laptops. The library faculty members are keeping track of when this happens by making a record in a trouble log. The log identifies each problem and which machines are having the problem so that the technician can investigate further. The access point was placed in a central location in the library so that the laptops could be used anywhere in the library, but it may need to be moved into the library classroom.

Each laptop has a built-in touch pad rather than an external mouse. Many of the students like them, but very few have used them before. It takes class time (15-20 minutes) for the students to practice using the touch pads, and some students really have trouble using them. The library purchased a few mice for students that have trouble with the touch pads; however, the technician has had to remind the library faculty that mice should be connected before the computers are turned on. The library faculty requested additional mice so that each student can make the choice between a mouse or a touch pad.

The library only has 15 laptops in use and many classes have 20 to 30 students. Two students can share the computer and work together, but it would be much better to have a laptop for each student. The laptops are numbered to facilitate reporting problems. The storage cabinet slots are numbered to match. The library faculty members suggest that future storage cabinets be made with plenty of room for each laptop. The library’s slots do not have any extra space, and sometimes squeezing the laptops into the slots is tricky. The adapter cards (wireless network cards that stick out of each machine) are fragile. Library faculty must take extra care when handling each device.

Library faculty always set the laptops out before instruction time and put them away afterwards. The first time they used the laptops in a class session, a librarian booted up all of them ahead of time. When the students entered the room, they immediately started working (or playing) with the laptops, and the librarian felt that she lost control of the class right then. Since then, the reference librarians leave the laptops closed until they are ready for the students to use them (Patton 2000).

The record of library faculty and student experiences has helped the technician iron out problems with wireless connectivity. When the wireless laptops were first set up, the library director demonstrated the new technology to the full-time library staff. Some individuals felt very comfortable with the touch pad mouse, but others began having difficulty. Following the discovery of mouse discomfort, five external mouse devices were purchased so users could use an optional device. Part-time library faculty have had the least amount of exposure to the wireless laptops because of limited training time, and the fact that most of the instruction has been carried out by the full-time library faculty.

Technical Challenges

The technicians are working on a resolution to the loss of signal problem mentioned above. During the fall semester the technician relocated the access point. Like any new installation, it will take time to iron out all the problems, but the library faculty would rather learn through trial and error than live without the technology. Plans are underway to add additional wireless laptops for use in the library by the spring semester so students will not have to share devices. The library faculty will also explore developing Blackboard courses that can be used on the wireless laptops to reinforce library bibliographic instruction whenever a student needs it. Imagine students roaming the library or even the campus with wireless laptops that can support their intellectual growth.

Other Experiences

Community colleges are rapidly adopting wireless technology to support student-computing needs. Colleges are finding that wireless connections are often more economical than the expansion of wired networks. Hudson Valley in Albany, NY is another community college that has adopted wireless technology. Hudson Valley Community College is allowing 40 students enrolled in the computer information systems program to access the Internet via wireless laptops as a result of $100,000 in federal grants (Fricano 2000). These students were selected because of their enrollment in targeted courses. The wireless laptops will remain the property of the college, but these students will be able to borrow them during the study. They served in a pilot study so that their use could be analyzed. This project will serve as the basis for the college’s future wireless developments. Hudson Valley received an initial $92,000 from the Vocational Technology and Education Act.

Wireless technology is increasingly being used, broadening the use of laptops on campus. Laptops without hardwire connections are being used to download files, design Web pages and listen to MP3 files (Guernsey 2000). Several academic institutions are leading the way by installing completely wireless infrastructures. Some aging institutions have decided to use a wireless network to save money. Over the years, large investments had been made to provide high-speed Internet access to laboratories and offices. These very same aging institutions found that wireless technology could cut the cost of building a wired infrastructure. Prestigious colleges and universities have begun to look to wireless networks for some of their classrooms. Some institutions have installed wireless networks to supplement their wired ones.

What defines a wireless network? The computer (desktop, laptop, etc.) must have a wireless adapter card installed in it. The wireless network will have one or more access points (book-sized hubs) to make the connection to the college’s wired Ethernet network (Guernsey 2000). Connectivity from a wireless laptop is not as fast as from most wired computers. Wireless enhances portability and reduces dependency on network and electrical wires. The typical range between an access point and a wireless laptop is 300 feet.

As with the adoption of any new technology, a college that installs a wireless network will encounter challenges. There are pros and cons to using wireless technology. There may be blocked signals, due to the types of building structures present (i.e. a steel elevator shaft). Interference with radio frequency can also be a challenge (i.e. cell telephones using the same frequency).

Some universities have used committees made up of faculty, staff and students to investigate and recommend a wireless solution. Wireless technology generally starts small, but its acceptance can grow rapidly. In one instance, a select group of incoming freshmen participated in the pilot that required them to use wireless technology to access courses in engineering, calculus and English. The college supplied the students with wireless adapter cards and driver software free of charge (University of Oklahoma 1999).

Conclusions

St. Louis Community College started small with wireless networking on the Florissant Valley Campus. The college is among the early implementers of wireless technology in community colleges. In the fall of 2000, a team of three made a presentation of the college’s experiences at the League for Innovation’s Computers and Information Technology Conference. Attending the conference allowed the team to brainstorm about future wireless plans. Why not expand access points so students can use mobile computing to support more collaborative learning? How will additional faculty be introduced to new wireless technology? As plans are made for replacement equipment in the library, could wireless technology replace outdated wired hub technology? Why not circulate wireless laptops to students using the library, in the same way other material is circulated? We have begun to experiment and are reflecting on our findings. We will continue to create new opportunities for our students and faculty to incorporate technology into the learning environment. In closing, we encourage you to visit a few Web sites that we found beneficial as we researched wireless technology.

www.wavelan.com
www.cisco.com/warp/public/44/jump/wireless.shtml
www.computerworld.com/cwi/story/0,1199,NAV47_STO49469,00.html
www.symbol.com/products/wireless/wireless.html

Stephanie Diane Tolson is the library director for the St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley. She is experienced with library automation and administration. Stephanie is a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration at St. Louis University.

E-mail: stolson@stlcc.cc.mo.us


References

Fricano, Mike. 2000. “Computer Students Go Wireless.” Times Union, July 26.

Guernsey, Lisa. 2000. “Unplugged On Campus, but Always Connected: When the goal is high-speed Web access for students and faculty, wireless networks can cut cost and add mobility.” New York Times, April 20.

Niemeyer, Herbert. 2000. “Request for proposals, wireless local area network.” St. Louis Community College: MO www.stlcc.cc.mo.us/fv/users/hniemeyer/wirelan3.htm.

Patton, Janice. 2000. E-mail response to an inquiry on the Bibliographic Instruction. Listserv, June 6.

“University of Oklahoma students go wireless with their laptops.” T.H.E. Journal, 1999, 26:7, 64-65.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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