The Hidden Costs of Wireless Computer Labs

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Mobile labs may bring us a step closer to one-to-one computing, but with the proliferation of security problems and tech support issues, are theyreally ready to replace dedicated computer labs?

Four years ago, theCupertino Union SchoolDistrict (CUSD), locatedin California’s SiliconValley, introduced wireless mobilecomputer labs to enhance classroomcomputing and increasestudent access to computers. Although thewireless labs have provided more classroomcomputing, teachers and technologyaides still have mixed views abouttheir cost-benefit ratio. This is because theproliferation of viruses and spyware hasdramatically increased number ofcomputer maintenance hours, and laptopsstored in carts can prove cumbersome toupdate and disinfect.

Half of the elementary schools and allof the middle schools in our K-8 schooldistrict have purchased one or moremobile labs. The labs feature a cart thatsecurely stores, charges, and transportsbetween 16 to 32 laptops simultaneously,while an on-cart wireless access point andlaser printer provide network access andprinting, respectively. On average, schoolsare paying more than $20,000 for the 16-laptop configuration, and that’s beforebuying curriculum software. In ourdistrict, most schools purchased AppleComputer’s wireless mobile lab(www.apple.com), which is loaded withiBook laptops, while a few schoolspurchased Hewlett-Packard’s mobile lab(www.hp.com).

The original goals for purchasing thelabs varied among the schools, but thecommon theme was an improvement in the student-to-computer ratio and flexiblecomputing resources. Most schoolsalready had a dedicated computer lab thatwas fully utilized, but they wanted a betteralternative to the few aging desktopcomputers that typically were in a classroom.Multi-day checkouts of mobile labsfurther enhanced their usefulness by eliminatingdaily setup and shutdown times.

The mobile lab also proved to be a valuablealternative for one school that lacked theroom for a dedicated computer lab. Still,while space savings and an improvedstudent-to-computer ratio was realizedthroughout our district, security and maintenanceissues surfaced that were not alwaysfactored into the purchase decision.

Scheduling and Security Concerns

Advanced reservations are the key tosharing mobile computer labs betweenmultiple classrooms, but battery life andrecharging time must be calculated intothe schedule as well. Laptop batteries canlast from two to four hours, depending onthe type of activity, but pausing to rechargeduring the school day means two hours ofdowntime and unavailability. It is possibleto buy extra batteries and swap them intolaptops as the cart is moved between classrooms,but this process is not appealing toteachers and extra batteries are costly.

Keeping Laptops Safe

Most student desks do not provide adequatespace for a laptop and backpack, which canlead to accidents. Security can also be anissue with laptop computers; their sizemakes it easy to slip one out of the classroomundetected. In fact, a recent theft from aCUSD middle school computer lab reducedthe number of laptops from 51 to 32. Thecarts are locked when not in use and storedin a secure location, but laptops can bevulnerable at the end of a class period, orafter school hours.“With all the backpacks ina classroom, it takes a diligent teacher to keeplaptops from being broken or vandalized,”says Christine Shepherd, tech aide at MillerMiddle School. “It also takes time for theteacher to set them up for each class, signthem out, and then properly put them away.”

“The most time-consuming maintenance task for tech aidesis updating software and disinfecting laptops, which is mademore difficult by the lack of a dedicated space.”

Maintenance Issues

The most time-consuming maintenancetask for tech aides is updating software anddisinfecting laptops, which is made moredifficult by the lack of a dedicated space.Although, theoretically, laptops could beupdated while in the cart, the wirelessnetwork bandwidth (11Mbps) is not sufficientto allow the simultaneous updatespossible with a local area network in acomputer lab, which has a much higherdata transfer speed (100MB).

“A conventional computer lab is mucheasier to maintain because ethernetconnections are more reliable than wirelessconnections,” says Alice Sing, mediaclerk at Sedgwick Elementary School. Thesolution to this problem is to reconfigurethe laptops to use ethernet for updates, orindividually update each laptop, both ofwhich are time-intensive processes.

Wireless protocols can also presentproblems in the classroom. For instance,34 laptops hitting the base station simultaneouslycan cause some dropped connections.This is especially a problem at theend of class when students save their workto the server, according to Lee Appelbaum,tech aide for Kennedy Middle School.Since the lab is being used in the classroom,a tech aide is not usually present, which canfrustrate teachers and students. Having atech aide available to troubleshoot theseissues, as is the situation in a computer lab,would encourage teachers to use themobile lab more.

According to Blue Hills ElementarySchool’s Donna Blomquist, the ongoingupkeep costs can also prove to be excessive,with batteries needing to be replaced aftertwo years and charging tips easily broken.Aside from the frequent recalibration andreplacement of lithium batteries, theincreased handling of portable computerscontributes to more physical damage thanto desktop computers. Laptops aredropped, for instance, resulting in brokenkeys or worse. This damage often g'es unnoticed until the next class that borrowsthe cart, which can lead to reluctance to usethe cart for mission-critical lessons. Onemiddle school has even resorted to usinglaptops in the library, where there isadequate space and personnel to monitorhandling.

Curriculum Integration

All of our schools that were polled are usingthe mobile labs for Internet research anddirected writing projects. Several schoolsalso report using the wireless computerlabs to immerse students in technology forthe life span of a project. “The iBook labwas purchased to support technologyimmersion in the classroom,” saysAppelbaum. “They use Inspiration software(www.inspiration.com) for brainstormingand outlining, the Internet forresearch, and the local network for collaboration.”Students then use HyperStudio(www.hyperstudio.com) and PowerPoint(office.microsoft.com/en-us/default.aspx)to present their findings to the class. Inaddition, other schools report using the labin science classes to research and writereports on diseases.

Editing movies and other colloborativeprojects works particularly well with thewireless laptops. For example, small teamsof students can move to comfortable locationson campus to edit movies or puttogether slide shows. Students can also sitin a circle or pass the laptops around toeach other to share Web sites or view a workin progress.

Laptop Alternative

At Stocklmeir Elementary School, amobile cart of 33 AlphaSmart computercompanions (www.alphasmart.com) hasbeen an inexpensive solution for directedwriting projects and teaching keyboardingskills. AlphaSmart computers are compactlaptop alternatives with a full-featuredkeyboard and an LCD display. Maintenanceissues have been almost nonexistent,and these computers represent aquarter of the cost of a mobile computer labwith the same number of units. Clearly, theAlphaSmart devices are a mobile productworth considering.

“Collaborative projects that involve small teams are well suitedto the flexible computing that laptops and wirelessnetworking enable in a dedicated lab environment.”

Conclusions

Schools with mobile labs generally have abetter student-to-computer ratio than thosewithout, but the cost of reliability for thelabs is increased tech hours.“Meeting ourgoal of using the mobile lab in classrooms isnot achievable without proper tech supportfrom me, and encouragement from theprincipal and me, ”says Olga Eidelman, techaide at Eisenhower Elementary School.

While wireless mobile labs enhancecomputing technology in our schools,they are not yet ready to replace the dedicatedcomputer lab. Older students canbenefit from the independent researchand computing that mobile labs allow, butcollaborative projects that involve smallteams are well-suited for the flexiblecomputing that laptops and wirelessnetworking enable in a dedicated lab environment.Ultimately, as wireless protocolsimprove, updating laptop software willbecome easier and connections willbecome more reliable. This will allow anincreasing number of dedicated computerlabs to adopt wireless protocols, furtherblurring the line between desktopcomputers and laptops.

Una Daly is the technology coordinator atChrista McAuliffe K-8 School in Saratoga,CA. She previously worked as a softwaremanager and engineer specializing incomputer networking at Apple Computersand 3Com Corp.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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