Case Study - University of Oklahoma Students Go Wireless with Their Laptops

Attending class at the University of Oklahoma's College of Engineering isn't what it used to be. One of the most noticeable changes is that notebooks carried in students' book bags are now of the electronic variety. And, with the school's wireless network connectivity, the students have newfound freedom - freedom to access information remotely over the network, to download lectures at a convenient time from anywhere around campus, to receive and to review course materials at their own pace, and to "roam" outside of the formal classroom, all the while being wirelessly connected to information on the university's server.

OU students are using their laptops during regular engineering classes in classrooms configured for wireless network access. Course syllabi and requirements, outlines and lecture notes are stored online and are available in real time. Many professors assign homework online and require the students to submit it electronically. Others videotape their presentations, allowing students to download them at their own convenience instead of attending a formal class lecture. In this case, the wireless radio frequency bandwidth has proven itself capable of handling the demands of heavy traffic, even video. As a result, the professors are making growing use of Web-based and multimedia sessions to disseminate information to students, and vice versa.

"The wireless laptops make an important contribution to the students' overall college and learning experience," says Dr. John Hawley, assistant dean of information technology and computing, College of Engineering. "The students use them as a communications tool, a learning tool and an engineering tool. Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of the wireless network at the College of Engineering is that the industry will know our graduates have the computer skills necessary to make them competitive in all engineering fields."

Wireless communications has made it possible for students to more fully utilize today's latest interactive courseware. For example, students can download tutorials from the Web on Economics & Contours that run on Windows 95 and can review the material at their convenience. Some professors even assign work based on the assumption of Internet access. For example, a student may be given an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) assignment using the Internet to engage in discussions with other students at another location.

Wireless networking has also freed up the wired infrastructure for more traditional wired applications. "As the college expands its use of the wireless laptops so everyday word processing and spreadsheet computing can be done on the students' machines, our wired network can better provide more complex, industrial-strength engineering applications software," says Hawley.

Start of the Wireless Era

About two and a half years ago, Dean Billy L. Crynes of the College of Engineering (C'E) commissioned a study by a group of faculty, staff and students to address the issue of requiring students to obtain laptop computers that could be connected without wires to the university's LAN. The committee interviewed their peers, conducted a survey to measure the actual computer usage of current engineering students, and discussed the pros and cons of requiring wireless laptop computers in specified courses. The committee's final report was positive on the "laptop idea," leading to the creation of a pilot program for the 1996 fall term.

At that time, 24 incoming freshmen were selected to participate in the test program, and special sections of engineering, calculus and English courses were utilized for the pilot. "With their laptops, the students were mobile and had the ability to work anywhere at any time, and in the classroom instructors' lectures and students' notes were online," recalls Hawley. "The program was a tremendous success, and we felt the use of the wireless laptops improved the learning experience."

Since that initial pilot project, the program has been expanding quickly. The C'E now has a six-classroom building completely set up for wireless network communications, in addition to the engineering building library. Students can utilize their wireless LAN capability in the surrounding area, at nearby benches, tree-lined study areas and even at a pizza place across the street. Today, more than 700 of the C'E students (about a quarter of the total student population) and 12 staff members are using the laptops, notes Hawley.

"The remainder of our department will be made wireless-ready in pieces. Currently, the college has 40 of the access points installed, with plans to expand the wireless application by adding 20 more access points this year and 20 the following year. After that, it will explode onto the entire university campus," he predicts.

Students entering OU's C'E program must add a laptop to their back-to-school shopping list. The college supplies them with the AMP wireless adapter card and driver software free of charge. "Students can buy any laptop of their choice, but if they purchase a suggested brand (i.e., one that has been tested for C'E's wireless application) from the campus computer store, we'll help them with the setup and do any maintenance required. The college will even give a student a loaner if their own laptop needs to be repaired," says Hawley. To date, tested laptops include models from Compaq, Dell, Acer and IBM. An orientation lecture on how to use the wireless computers is also provided.

C'E officials have set a minimum laptop standard consisting of a Pentium 200MHz microprocessor with 32MB of RAM, a 2GB hard drive, and a 10X CD-ROM. The college installs an AMP PCMCIA adapter card into each student's unit, as well as supplies the required wireless software drivers. Windows 95 is the standard operating system. The only additional software utilized by the college, which is also provided free of charge, is required to connect to the Internet. With the Internet connection, students can access the computer servers on the department LAN and print out materials as needed.

The C'E purchases their wireless equipment from AMP, Incorporated, of Harrisburg, Pa. The students' laptops are connected to the C'E's Ethernet LAN via AMP access points placed on the ceiling in each classroom, in the library, and in other strategic locations throughout the engineering building. The C'E LAN includes approximately 500 nodes and 25 servers of various brands and models.

Most of the PCs are Windows NT-based with a few UNIX workstations at the desktop. The students are connected to the UNIX servers. The department's LAN is available everyday on a 24-hour basis and is part of the university's campus wide area network. "Our LAN is the only one on campus running wireless applications right now, but it's spreading to other departments. By 2001 we plan to have the entire university connected wirelessly," says Hawley.

Wireless In A Nutshell

The AMP wireless PCMIA adapter is a card installed in the laptop. This adapter creates the illusion of an Ethernet connection on the laptop. At the other end of the wireless connection is the AMP access point. This device is actually wired to the college's network, and provides the interface between the outside world (the wired network) and the wireless connection (the laptop).

The spread spectrum radio frequency technology used by the wireless network is provided by Proxim, Inc., of Mountain View, Calif., and utilizes the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) frequency band. This is about 200 times higher than the typical FM radio frequency. Such high frequencies are used to avoid as much interference as possible. Each laptop can operate up to 1,000 feet away from the access points in open areas, and each access point can accommodate up to 15 independent channels within the same physical space. The radio data rate is 1.6 Mbit/sec, which is sufficient for most network tasks. For example, an average Word document would transfer in two or three seconds.

Proxim's wireless technology is designed to provide vertical users, such as educational institutions, with the industry's best combination of features for mobile wireless LAN applications, including high speed, long range, low power consumption, network scalability and advanced network management. The technology also offers the industry's only wireless connectivity to devices running the new Windows CE operating system.

Contact Information


Proxim, Inc.
Mountain View, CA
(800) 229-1630


AMP, Inc.
Harrisburg, PA
(800) 522-6752

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.