Carolina Uses Wireless Technology to Transform Learning

In connection with a new laptop requirement, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students are using wireless technology for high-speed access to the Internet, e-mail and the campus network in classrooms, labs, libraries and at other nearby sites. Greenlaw Hall, for example, is among about 40 key locations where the Academic Technology and Networks division has installed wireless access points on a campus where the largest U.S. freshman class ever required to own laptop computers (3,400 students) is in its first year. About 225 freshman English students equipped with laptops, battery power and wireless adapter cards are using the Internet in Greenlaw classrooms to conduct research for writing assignments and to share drafts. Teachers can split them up in small groups without worrying about wires. "Students report that wireless networking has helped them to be better collaborators in the writing classes," says Dr. Daniel Anderson, assistant professor of English. "Students also suggest that using their laptops this way gives them a better understanding of how to review and revise their writing, as well as the opportunity to participate in more hands-on learning."

UNC's wireless technology supports a laptop requirement that will reach more than 15,000 undergraduates by fall 2003. It's part of the Carolina Computing Initiative, a plan to enhance teaching, learning and research, and to equip students and faculty with computers. By making technology more accessible in academic life, UNC aims to produce graduates with the high-tech savvy required for 21st century professional success. While some campuses have a range of computer requirements, UNC's is unique among major U.S. research universities because of its size, scope and approach.

The Value of Wireless

Carolina has deployed Cisco Systems, Inc.'s Cisco Aironet 340 series access points - book-sized hubs that plug into the central wired network - to transmit data at high speeds through walls, ceilings and quadrangles dotting the campus of the nation's first public university. They are in seven academic buildings' classrooms or laboratories with a reach extending outside to courtyards adjacent to some buildings and the Pit, a student gathering site. Other locations include libraries, the student union and student stores, as well as the first floor of the administration building and Chancellor James M'eser's office. M'eser, an avid wireless user, often uses wireless devices to work from his university-owned residence near campus.

Carefully placed antennae at one edge of campus also extend UNC's wireless radio signals across a major Chapel Hill street to nearby businesses, including Cafe Trio, a coffee shop, and Hector's, a fast-food restaurant. Students can buy Cisco wireless cards at student stores or check them out at the graduate library, which also loans out 20 wireless laptops for use in the building.

UNC's advances with wireless technology and the laptop initiative are part of a means to a greater end: transforming how learning occurs on campus, M'eser says. "Rather than just having a classroom with four walls or a faculty member's office or a laboratory or a studio, the green spaces are equally a learning environment, as are the coffee shops," he remarks. "So students can be sipping coffee on Franklin Street, but also be engaged in conversation on the Internet with each other. It makes the entire campus part of the learning environment. There's no question, in the conversations I have had with students, that their experiences on this campus are deeper and more meaningful because of their ability to be connected with each other and with faculty. I think that what we are seeing here will be the norm on American college campuses within the very short term; three to five years."

With the laptop requirement, UNC is well-positioned to use wireless technology in classrooms and places where students study and learn, states Marian Moore, vice chancellor for information technology. "In the computing culture we're building at Carolina, increasingly mobile students and faculty need easy-to-use access to the Internet and our network around the clock with maximum flexibility." Universities often have relied on piecemeal solutions to network wiring, or invested in multimedia classrooms - approaches that are expensive and that don't satisfy demand, Moore observes.

Creating the Network

UNC is using wireless to supplement a wired infrastructure that includes an Ethernet port for every pillow in all 29 residence halls. But on a campus with buildings that date to the university's founding 207 years ago, financial and logistical hurdles, including asbestos removal, remained concerns. That's why UNC became a test site for Cisco wireless equipment after plans for the laptop requirement began taking shape. In 1999, nearly two-thirds of the entering freshmen voluntarily chose to buy IBM laptops as part of a pilot project that included wireless classes. Those experiences, coupled with technologial improvements and the industry's adoption of technical standards, prompted expansion of UNC's wireless use. As wireless technology advances, more access points may be added. Possible sites range from study lounges in residence halls to Polk Place, a large central quadrangle. Some sororities and fraternities off campus are investigating wireless networking. Kenan-Flagler Business School and the computer science department have put wireless technology in their buildings.

"When each student has a networked computer, they can learn to share ideas and write more effectively," notes Dr. Todd Taylor, assistant professor of English. "Teaching revision is at the heart of teaching composition. The Internet enables writers to interact, mostly through e-mail, but also through the Internet, which is a giant archive. The new wireless classrooms with in-class Internet access are helping us teach the art of research, especially to find information, use evidence and evaluate sources." Taylor and Anderson collaborated on a custom software package spawned by the laptop requirement and wireless capability that they are testing. The software involves databases that can more effectively track files for classes and exchange documents and comments about writing among students, teaching assistants and faculty. If the testing checks out, the software could radically change Carolina's writing program, which, at full capacity, has up to 80 sections of classes. "So far, the pilot instructors and students have been very enthusiastic about the innovation and potential here," Taylor says. "The students often say things like, 'Learning this way definitely prepares me for the future' and 'This is what I hoped college would be like.'"


Cisco Systems, Inc.
Santa Clara, CA
(800) 778-3632

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.