WiFi Bolsters Alabama District's 1:1 Tablet PC Program


Auburn City Schools in Alabama has found that a "no strings attached" approach to classroom networking has let new approaches to instruction take flight.

The district--which includes one kindergarten school, five elementary schools, one middle school, one junior high, and one high school--has deployed a WiFi network to more than 1,000 tablet PC-equipped students and teachers at its junior high and high schools as part of a 21st Century Learning Initiative.

That initiative aims to deliver instruction via a one to one computing environment, increase student achievement, and ensure equitable learning through technology. Per that initiative, the network, tablets, and some key classroom applications have refocused the learning environment, according to Debbie Rice, Auburn City Schools' director of technology.

"Prior to the network, instruction was more static; it was stand and deliver," she said. "The big difference is student involvement. Content is now the focus. It's student-facilitated, not teacher-facilitated."

The Network
The district deployed a WiFI network using WiFi access points and switches from Trapeze Networks at the Auburn Junior High School and Auburn High School. The junior high currently uses approximately 80 access points and the high school roughly 100 access points. All schools are connected via fiber optic to the board office, according to Jay Sandefur, network engineer for Auburn City Schools, who Rice said was instrumental in the network deployment.

In March of 2006, ACS's junior high teachers (grades 8 and 9) and high school teachers (grades 10 through 12) received Gateway M285-E tablet PCs. The units feature a 14-inch widescreen display, a keyboard for converting between tablet and laptop usage, 1.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and 802.11g connectivity.

Designing a wireless network often can pose some difficulties, especially when school districts are working on tight budgets. Goal one is get things right the first time. Trapeze Networks' Management tool, Ringmaster, also provided Sandefur and his colleagues with network planning tools that provided three-dimensional diagrams that illustrated network coverage.

The district imported CAD drawings of the schools into Ringmaster, as well as data on variables such as how many users would access each AP, and Ringmaster began planning the network--even accounting for building materials. From there, Sandefur could see how coverage would change simply by dragging and dropping access points on the diagrams.

Fast forward to today, and Ringmaster provides ACS with similar levels of control over the network, now that it is up and running.

"You can monitor real-time data to determine if access points are being overhwelmed and whether you need to add access points," Sandefur said. "It gives you a good view of what's going on. You can drill down to see anything you want."

Using the Trapeze access points and controllers, ACS's network splits traffic and network management duties between the access points and the central switches/controllers. Previous WiFi architectures often centralized both traffic and network Management, which meant that traffic had to be routed through a centralized controller.

"Let's say a laptop on an access point needs to send a large file to another laptop on the same access point," said David Cohen, director of product development for Trapeze. "In the older model [with centralized traffic management] the first laptop would send the file through access point, back to the controller, and the controller would send it back through the access point to the second laptop.

Rather than create a bottleneck, the Trapeze access points handle the traffic management, while the centralized management of configuration, provisioning, fault diagnosis and similar duties resides on the controller.

"Now the access point automatically forwards the file between the laptops." he explained.

Plus, adjacent access points can already cover for each other, according to Sandefur and Cohen. "You can establish a level of overlap," Sandefur said. "If one access point becomes overwhelmed with network traffic, another can share the load.

In terms of growth potential, Sandefur said the network has plenty of room to scale in terms of additional access points without having to add another switch.

In the Classroom
However, the classroom is where the rubber meets the road, and in that regard, Rice said the key is ensuring that the network, tablets and software all make good on the goal of student-facilitated learning. With the help of some additional classroom tools ACS is gaining traction in that regard, she said.

Using software from DyKnow, teachers can monitor everything that is on all students' screens and interact with them. Besides being able to privately instruct students who might be goofing off to get back on task, the teachers can help students and even use what they have as examples by pulling that screen to the teacher's computer and then projecting on a Smart Technologies interactive whiteboard.

Teachers use the interactive whiteboards and Smart Technologies software, to take notes, play those notes back to students with audio, or post them to the Web for remote playback.

Another heavily used app at ACS's wireless classrooms is Microsoft's OneNote, Rice said, which provides students with a "digital binder" on their tablets. The software helps students organize their notes and class information into one place, labeling them with tabs at the top of the screen.

Phased Rollout
Ultimately ACS aims for the network to serve grades 9 through 12, which would comprise 2,000 students and 100 teachers, Rice said. To roll out the network, the district started with the ninth grade class of 2006 and will expand the program year by year, as that class progresses through each grade level.

The project started by testing the Trapeze system for three months prior to rollout, in order to identify potential problems and fine tune access point location. So, in early 2006, ACS installed six access points at the junior high school and tested them with the teachers' tablets to ensure stable connectivity, Sandefur said.

For the initial rollout in March 2006, the district purchased 380 tablets for ninth graders, who began using the network. Now that those ninth graders have entered the 10th grade (in October 2007), they took those tablets with them, and the district bought an additional 450 units for the new crop of incoming ninth graders.

"We considered expanding [the network] down to the sixth grade, but that's much further in the future," Rice said. "The target is to continue to grow the network year by year, but we will evaluate the data to make sure we should continue moving it grade level by grade level."

To finance the project, Rice said the district is working on a 10-year budget that covers infrastructure, tablet units, software, and professional development for staff, as well as equipment repairs and replacement. ACS allocated $1 million a year in order to expand the program by one grade level per year. While line items could change over time, Rice said careful preplanning should help the district avoid major shifts.

"You can't keep up with technology for the sake of keeping up with technology," Rice said. "You have to have a plan in place and stick to it."

Of course, the network is new, and the qualitative and quantitative tracking of results is still formative. That said, all indications are that ACS is on a very positive track, according to Rice.

"We have one year's of information under our belt, so we need to go through the second year to yield any sort of trends," she said. "However, teachers say attendance has picked up and is more steady and that they have seen increased student engagement--which eventually leads to grades.

"We have also seen improvements in discipline getting better," she continued. "I'm not sure if we can attribute attribute that to the wireless network, but it does put positive behavior support in place. We see students working together to self regulate."

Professional Development
A key part of the program's initial success was ensuring that educators, as well as students, could make the most of their wireless environment.

"Our focus from the outset has been progressional development," Rice said. To begin that process, teachers completed online surveys as part of a gap analysis that benchmarked their professional development needs.

Integrating technology into the curriculum became a key focus, and the school set aside weekly 60-minute "Tech Tuesday" sessions to help teachers focus on using classroom applications and ensure the solutions would address their needs and concerns.

"I recall a statement that one of the teachers made during [an early Tech Tuesday] session: 'I want to take what I have and just use it,'" Rice said. "At this point we realized that we were, like many schools, focusing on the equipment and the applications, and not the content."

From that point forward, the Tech Tuesday sessions started examining lesson plans to determine how they could be made interactive, and how that curriculum could be reshaped to put the emphasis on helping the teacher better deliver ideas to students.

"At that point our professional development program took off," Rice said. "We began to work with vertical teams based on content areas, and teachers would share their ideas."

That advanced collaboration resulted in the wireless classroom environment that is putting ACS closer to its 21st Century Learning Initiative, according to Rice, who added "You go into these classrooms and you see these kids really on fire to learn."

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About the author: David Kopf is a freelance technology writer and marketing consultant. He can be reached at [email protected].

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About the Author

David Kopf is a freelance technology writer and marketing consultant, and can be reached at [email protected].