Wireless Networking Enhances Educational Opportunities at Alexandria Technical College
Maintaining a wired network for approximately 1,800 computers is a challenge in itself. Compounding the difficulty of the situation, Alexandria Technical College (ATC) in Alexandria, Minn. - a small town located about halfway between Minneapolis, Minn., and Fargo, N.D. - is composed of several buildings on 90 acres, and its students are demanding users of computer networks. This made the implementation of a wireless network in the geographic information systems (GIS) computer lab at ATC very challenging. One of the nation's top 10 vocational schools, ATC is a recognized leader in improving learning through technology. Supporting that goal, the college ensures access with a ratio of one computer for every 1.5 students. It also provides a student-to-faculty ratio of 20-to-1. This combination has resulted in 97.9 percent of ATC students finding program-related jobs in 1999.
ATC serves approximately 2,100 full- and part-time students in 47 majors and several specialized training programs. Many of the school's degree and custom programs integrate highly intensive computer applications. In the GIS program, students use detailed mapping, surveying and graphics software that generate huge computer files, which students store and transfer on ATC's network. In addition, ATC offers instruction in fields such as computer and HTML programming, computer technical support, mechanical engineering and design, and communication arts, creating heavy demand on its network resources.
As network administrators at campuses across the country have learned in recent years, the typical volume of traffic is enough to cripple any network that isn't performing at its optimum level. Common consumers of network bandwidth include users connecting to the Internet, accessing network resources such as printers and servers, exchanging files, swapping e-mail and instant messages, updating calendars, and downloading music and video files. The wiring necessary to support the extensive demands on a computer network is costly and difficult to maintain. Resolving a problem on a wired network entails troubleshooting multiple potential trouble spots, including cables, connectors, wall jacks, input and output ports, and hardware and software configurations. Adding additional connectivity requires IT staff to connect and pull cable through walls and conduits, often among multiple buildings on the campus. A wired network limits users to physical spaces where they are able to plug into the network - an increasing challenge when everyone uses computers to learn and interact with other students and the faculty. In other words, wired networks increasingly interfere with the ability of IT administrators to keep networks performing at their optimum level.
An End-to-End Application
Fully networked electronic classrooms enhance students' educational opportunities at ATC. Faculty members develop multimedia skills that improve instruction and help students acquire skills that will serve them in a future of lifelong learning. ATC accepted Micron- PC's wireless network proposal, selecting its data-intensive GIS computer lab as the test site. The company currently has an installed base of 700 laptops and 1,100 workstations. In addition to the technical support, which comes standard with all MicronPC systems, ATC uses the company's extended support, including Advanced Portable Exchange and SystemSatisfaction, which provides for the repair or replacement of damaged notebook computers.
MicronPC proposed an end-to-end wireless network system to meet the IT challenges at ATC and more easily maintain its network's optimal performance. Students in technology-oriented programs at ATC lease MicronPC TransPort notebooks, which combine a flexible design and rich feature set with a small footprint. For the GIS lab project, MicronPC equipped TransPort notebook com-puters with wireless networking cards and two Wi-Fi-compliant high-speed wireless access points, which they installed in January 2002.
Since the installation, the wireless network has performed as well as the wired network, with a fraction of the maintenance and configuration challenges. The wireless access points give GIS students complete flexibility to move around their lab, interacting with individuals and groups without being harnessed to the wired network. The wireless access points' coverage extends outside of the lab and into the neighboring common area, allowing students to congregate and work in a more comfortable non-classroom setting.
In addition, the students had a unique opportunity to observe and participate in the network implementation. Students watched the installation of several cards and one Wi-Fi access point, then had the hands-on opportunity to install the remaining wireless cards and second access point; thus providing the students with real-life experience. This is particularly valuable according to Jan D'ebbert, ATC's dean of technology. "Wireless technology is emerging as a dominant technology, and we need to look ahead to what's next with handhelds and palmtops, because wireless is going to be an inescapable part of all our lives," he says.
Less IT Clutter
In the coming months, ATC and its students will gain valuable insight into the opportunities of wireless net-working and become better acquainted with this emerging technology. ATC will also gauge student response to the technology, particularly regarding the speed and reliability of a wireless network under the stress of intense computing tasks. They believe its wireless network will create less IT clutter than the traditional networked classroom. The school also expects to save both time and money by adding more wireless networked classrooms, since there is no need to install costly network cables. Wireless technology also eliminates several potential obstructions when troubleshooting connectivity issues.
ATC's existing relationship with MicronPC and its portable computer lease plan make technology relatively easy for many reasons. "We consider Alexandria Technical College a true lab environment, so consistency is critical," says D'ebbert. "When students and the instructor open their laptops, they all see the same thing and we know we're not going to have compatibility issues." D'ebbert adds that because of ATC's relationship with MicronPC the school's tech support has a very quick response time. In the event of a problem, the IT department can simply rebuild a student's files and configuration on an identical MicronPC computer, and get the student back in the classroom in just a couple of hours. Finally, the school's site licenses for educational software allow both students and faculty to use and learn industry-standard software they could not otherwise afford.
The wireless pilot project has made life easier, according to Sarah Gallagher, ATC's network administrator. "It takes a lot of people and a lot of hours to get a lab wired," she says. "With this wireless implementation, we configured one of the wireless access points and installed it in the ceiling. Now we have only one device to troubleshoot - or two if you troubleshoot students' network cards - instead of every cable, every jack and every connection." Gallagher adds that students benefit from the new system too. "Students have one less thing to do when they get into class," she says. "They don't have to get out their network cable and connect it, disconnect it, and haul the computer and cable around to find somewhere to sit that has a jack that works all the time - or try plugging it in here and there - because they don't have to worry about location."
ATC has earned both its reputation as the school that cares and its national top 10 ranking through its commitment to students and its hands-on preparation for the real world. The school will continue its collaboration with MicronPC over the next few months and periodically post updates to the company's Web site, evaluating potential barriers to greater wireless adoption, including capacity bottlenecks and security of wireless data transfer. The project will also allow the school and the company to assess strategies to improve educational opportunities further, and determine additional benefits of using wireless technologies in the classroom. With a regular cycle of upgrading its technology, ATC expects this pilot project will contribute to the school's transition to wireless networks during its normal rotation of equipment over the next three years.
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.