Wireless Technology in K-12 Education

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While WLANs have been around for some time now, it's only been during the last few years that we've seen more schools implementing this technology. Faster speeds and lower costs have made wireless one of the hottest technologies in K-12 education. Let's examine the reasons why schools are adopting this technology.

Flexibility. Many schools begin implementing wireless technology slowly by creating wireless "hotspots" on the fly. This is accomplished by putting a wireless access point on a cart along with a set of wireless laptop computers. A teacher can then wheel the cart anywhere in the school that has a network drop, plug the access point in and have an instant computer lab. Other benefits for schools that install a complete wireless network - with fixed access points permanently mounted in the building - are that teachers and students can roam freely about the building with a wireless device and connect up at any time.

Savings. In older buildings, where running CAT 6 cables for a wired network is difficult, the flexibility of a wireless installation can be a big money saver. As with any technology purchase, a good total cost of ownership analysis is in order (visit the CoSN-Gartner TCO tool online at http://classroomtco.cosn.org.

Expandability. Many school districts opt to add wireless networks onto their existing networks. This expandability makes wireless networks even more attractive because they can be added onto a school's existing network without abandoning the investment already made in the wired network.

Uses and Considerations

Wireless networking provides a tremendous number of uses in the K-12 environment. The creation of wireless hotspots on the fly allows teachers to set up wireless labs in classrooms, auditoriums, common areas and even outside of the building if there is a network drop near a window. Additional uses exist in schools where access points have been installed for full wireless connectivity throughout the campus such as:

  • IP wireless telephones allow teachers and administrators to roam anywhere in the building as they make and receive phone calls.
  • During parent-teacher nights, teachers have access to online gradebooks and digital portfolios wherever they are set up. Many schools use common areas for these events - often with 50 or more teachers set up in these large areas. But by utilizing a wireless network, everyone can be online at once.
  • Wireless PDAs are used by teachers to submit daily attendance into online student administration systems. They are also used by administrators and deans to access student information and for submitting discipline referral information while away from the office.

However, there are a few things to consider before implementing a wireless network that are unique to K-12. For instance, now that wireless home networking is growing, non-permanent wireless access points and removable wireless PC cards in laptops have become theft targets; whenever possible, order laptops with integrated cards. Wall mounted enclosures can also be used to protect access points that are within reach.

If laptop carts are going to be used, consider who will be responsible for getting the carts to the classroom. Teachers that are used to bringing a class to a ready-to-go computer lab may have issues with spending class time setting up laptops. Network security also needs to be considered, because wireless access points can be accessed from outside the building unless the correct security measures are taken.

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This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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