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IT Trends | Feature

Teaching Without Wires

By cutting its networking wires, Hollis Brookline High School in New Hampshire is providing faculty, administration, and students a more seamless Internet experience.

Intent on offering students the use of computers in the classroom, the administrative team at Hollis Brookline High School in Hollis, NH, knew there had to be a more efficient way to set up the Internet access for that equipment. The last thing the school wanted to do was wire 30 Ethernet connections for every classroom--a project that would not only be time consuming, but also expensive.

The first wireless option that Hollis Brookline explored found teachers reserving blocks of time to gain access to one of three "laptop carts," each of which housed 30 computers. Instructors connected to the wireless access point (associated with each cart) to a classroom computer jack. The solution worked for a while until frustrated teachers began complaining about how long it took to "power up" the system, thus delaying lessons and truncating classroom learning time.

When the opportunity to participate in a more expansive, wireless beta test surfaced, Principal Cynthia Matte grabbed it, hoping that it would solve the issues that instructors were grappling with. Using donated hardware, the school worked with U4EA Wireless last summer to install the Fusion 300 Wireless LAN Controller, with the accompanying access points (each of which covers up to six classrooms) mounted throughout the school's hallways.

Matte said the free beta test option came at the perfect time for her school, which is currently in the middle of implementing a five-year technology plan. "Going wireless and getting students and teachers equipped with laptops are key components of the plan," said Matte. "When the opportunity came to get up and running with wireless in a cost-effective manner, we went for it."

The initiative was rolled out slowly, starting with "just a few laptops using the wireless network," said Matte. That calculated approach helped the school address issues before the solution was introduced campuswide. That meant grabbing laptops and using a "can you hear me now?" kind of strategy to make sure the access points indeed covered the entire campus. When areas of spotty coverage were discovered, new access points were installed to bridge those gaps.

"We took the laptops and walked around the school, making sure that there was adequate access in the areas where we needed it," said Matte. "We didn't roll it out until we were confident that it was working throughout the building. Once we got there, it was pretty smooth sailing."

Hollis Brookline's wireless network is password-protected and only accessible via school-owned machines. "We don't allow students to bring in their private laptops and hook into our network," said Matte.

Matte said the move to a wireless environment has benefitted teachers and IT staff, both of which save time as a result of not having to deal with wired connections. "Our teachers are using laptops, [interactive whiteboards], and, now, iPads--all of which are on the wireless network," said Matte. "This saves a lot of time for the IT team, which doesn't have to run around from classroom to classroom fixing Internet issues."

The wireless access has also created a higher comfort level for teachers who may not have embraced technology as quickly as others. They see how easy it is to get up and running online, said Matte, and wind up integrating technology into their courses more rapidly than they did in the past. To help increase that adoption rate, the school dispatches a technology integration specialist (who is also a teacher) to work one-on-one with instructors, introducing them to Google applications and other free instructional tools.

Computer lab teachers have also benefitted from the wireless implementation, which freed up the school's three hard-wired labs that previously relied on the laptop carts and wired access. Finally, she said, teachers who don't have a specific classroom are no longer tethered to desktops and Ethernet connections. Instead, they can roam the school, knowing that their laptops will maintain connectivity.

With an eye on fulfilling her school's five-year technology goals, Matte said her team has set up an iPad lab in the library, where teachers can familiarize themselves with the devices and learn how to use them. So far, she said, interest has been fairly low and blames the fact that teachers can't always use their software of choice on the devices, which have lower memory capacity and capabilities. "We'll see how this [experiment] goes," said Matte, "but I don't think we'll be buying iPads for the campus anytime soon."

Up next, said Matte, will be a new computer lab centered on the high school's online learning options. Her ultimate goal is to not only address those students who want to accelerate their classroom education with online learning but also those who don't pass required courses in the classroom. "Right now, we're looking to build a lab that includes 15 to 18 computers," said Matte, "where someone will be able to interact with students who want to work ahead, catch up on or make up classes."

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