Examining the Wireless Classroom


A Borders bookstore in Orlando, Fla., The Green Mesquite BBQ in Austin, Texas, and Café Luna on Vashon Island, Wash. - what do they all have in common? People sitting in front of notebook computers or tapping on PDAs connected to the Internet courtesy of wireless technology. This new, increasingly common opportunity to connect to the Internet via a variety of technologies has made its way into the schools as well. I ran into a technology coordinator friend of mine at the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) Conference in Austin; she was chuckling about what wireless really meant for schools. Sure, it saves money, provides flexibility and allows a relatively easy expansion of networks. But, it also means kids are hanging out in cars in the school's parking lot late at night surfing the Net.

One issue of T.H.E. Journal cannot begin to explore all the aspects of wireless use in education, but this one is full of practical applications. This month's feature article, "Finding Waves: Techniques for a Successful Wireless Site Survey," provides a primer for the three most common methods of designing a campuswide WLAN. We also have an update from CoSN on wireless technology, as well as information on using wireless telephones to assist in school safety and communications. In addition, our applications stories chronicle different experiences with wireless technology:

  • St. John's University has installed a wireless network across its campuses throughout the New York metropolitan area.
  • The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina had a different task. They wanted to provide connectivity to all 540 mobile classrooms in their 148 K-12 schools.
  • The University of Memphis installed more than 1,100 wireless access points around its campus. They also use the system to link video cameras for surveillance of the university's public areas.

Wireless Trends

A few things became evident as we were putting this issue together. First is the dual ubiquity (if there is such a term) of this technology throughout our society. It truly is everywhere from coffee shops to airports to hotels. It also is in a growing number of technologies from laptops to PDAs to cell phones. And nowadays, it is not uncommon for people to disconnect their landline phone in favor of their cell phone.

Second, the application of wireless technology is similar across K-12 and higher education. You can read our feature story and applications articles and apply that information to all levels of education. While higher education tends to focus on deployment of a very widespread network serving thousands of clients, K-12 entities tend to focus more on COWs (computers on wheels) as an application of wireless technology. However, the commonalities of a secure, ubiquitous network are the same, no matter what the specific application. This is part of a larger trend of greater connections between K-12 and higher education (more on this trend in a future issue).

Third, wireless technology is getting significant traction in education at a faster rate than most of the technology coordinators and university CIOs I talk to anticipated. Chris Dede of Harvard University has noted that the two most common errors of technology assessment are to overestimate the speed of diffusion of an innovation and to underestimate its eventual consequences. With wireless, I am not sure that we have overestimated the speed of its diffusion in education. It has sped into schools more rapidly than I - a less than patient person - had hoped. We will closely watch the consequences of this technology.

Continued Strength of Ed Tech

On another note, it has been my pleasure to attend the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) and the TCEA Conference over the past month or so. At both conferences, I felt a high level of excitement among the attendees. FETC has long been a leader in the country, and this year was no exception with attendance the highest it's been in the last three years. The sessions generating the greatest interest were those related to the Internet and handheld devices. While the TCEA Conference was not quite able to match the record-setting number of registrants from last year, overall attendance, including a robotics contest and exhibitors, was up from 2003. As an organization, TCEA has a tradition of contests and awards for teachers and students. In the last few years, its robotics competition for students has grown significantly to 90 teams. These two conferences show that school districts and educators understand the importance of professional development and collegiality that a powerful conference can bring. They are also a testimony to the continued strength of the educational technology market. If you were unable to attend either conference, log on to our Web site (www.thejournal.com) to view images from FETC and the TCEA Conference.

Finally, I am disappointed to report that John Bailey, former director of the U.S. Education Department's Office of Educational Technology, has decided to leave the department to join the Bush campaign as deputy policy director. His leadership, enthusiasm and willingness to listen will be sorely missed in the department. He has set in motion a number of initiatives that will influence technology and education for some time to come, including an ambitious research agenda that we will feature as a part of our series on Scientifically Based Research. With his words; actions; and, in some cases, dollars, Bailey has also been a strong supporter of important educational technology organizations such as ISTE, CoSN and SETDA. Bailey continued a strong leadership tradition begun by Linda Roberts in the Clinton administration. Susan Patrick is assuming John's responsibilities as acting director. We anticipate the same powerful leadership from Patrick and wish her well.

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