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Alexandria Technical College Flourishes With the Implementation of a Wireless Network

Deciding to implement a wireless network across a university or technical college is seldom easy, but there are many associated benefits for both the college and its students. Alexandria Technical College (www.atc.tec.mn.us) experienced such benefits and challenges firsthand when it completed a wireless network on its campus over a year ago. (The original implementation was covered in the April 2002 issue of T.H.E. Journal, which is online at www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A4012.cfm.)

Getting Started

ATC's campus is composed of several buildings on 90 acres, which are located in Alexandria, Minn., about halfway between Minneapolis and Fargo, N.D. Serving about 2,100 full- and part-time students, the college saw the need to upgrade its network to meet student expectations in January 2002.

"We have a lot of tech-savvy students here that are interested in the latest and greatest technology," says Jan D'ebbert, ATC's dean of technology. "When a technology like wireless is growing in popularity, students expect to utilize it. Going wireless provided an excellent opportunity for our students to obtain real-life learning experiences."

The initial plan was to implement the wireless network in ATC's Geographic Information Systems lab and eventually expand the network to other areas around campus. MPC Computers (800-249-1179; www.buympc.com) offered to help ATC construct a wireless network in its GIS lab by providing the necessary wireless network cards, access points and installation services at no cost to the college. ATC has had a strong relationship with MPC for seven years now, says D'ebbert. "We have approximately 700 laptops and 1,000 desktops and are very satisfied."

Benefits and Challenges

Now that the college has been wireless for over a year, it has confirmed some of the positive elements it expected and some of the areas it was concerned about. One hurdle for ATC was that the original wireless network was only designed to support its minimum requirements, even though ATC had planned to expand its network in the future. Originally, not all access points were strategically placed with future expansion in mind. Upon review, ATC realized that plans to expand should have been considered during the initial developmental phases.

Another concern is that of security. It is important that students are aware of how easily others can pick up restricted data transferred across the network. Until satisfactory security measures can be employed, students need to exercise care and discretion. That issue is being addressed for instructors who send grades, social security numbers or other sensitive data over the network.

ATC believes that both the institution and the students have benefited from going wireless. "Moving to wireless classrooms has been very effective," says D'ebbert. "It builds ATC's image as a leading-edge technology school, it eliminates the need to run wires and we believe it is going to save us money."

The students also enjoy the flexibility of wireless, according to Jed Johnson, a recent ATC graduate. "Of course, there are some drawbacks regarding access points being out of range at times, but in general the student body has easily adapted to the wireless environment," he says. "In fact, we'd like to see the entire campus go wireless. The students enjoy the hands-on learning experience with the technology and the convenience."

Speed and reliability may have been concerns for ATC prior to installation, but they were quickly put to rest. "It's been better than we expected," says D'ebbert. "We've received no negative feedback saying there was an inadequate connection. We initially thought there might be a slower connection, but that simply hasn't been the case. The speed and reliability are the same as being wired."

Expanding the Network

ATC also continues to expand its wireless network with the help of MPC Computers, recently purchasing 200 additional laptops, according to D'ebbert. "We're very pleased with the systems, as well as the level of personalized service we receive," he says. "MPC designed the laptops to meet the rugged demands of students constantly opening and closing them and carrying them around everywhere. We completed extensive testing on the notebooks and are very impressed."

ATC will be constructing a new computer science building with 21 classrooms and a large lecture hall, and incorporating wireless technology is already part of the plan. "We're also setting up another existing concrete construction building as wireless," adds D'ebbert.

Since initial deployment in January 2002, ATC has expanded its wireless network to about a third of the campus, and it's continuing to grow. "When students choose an institution of learning, they expect nothing less than the latest technology," says D'ebbert. "Going wireless has been a positive experience for us, and I would encourage any educational institution to do the same."

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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