Look Ma, No Wires: Going Wireless on School Campuses - 08/25/2005

T.H.E. Focus

By Neal Starkman and Catherine Wambach

Wireless computing improves the odds for learning. Mobile laptop labs, hand-helds, and tablet PCs bring computer and Internet access directly to students. When a teachable moment happens, students are poised for action. And teachable moments are too good to miss.

For Ben Nadire, a mathematics teacher at Kent School in Kent, CT, the teachable moments increased when the school switched to tablet PCs. Students worked interactively with their tablets-swapping with their neighbors to share problem-solving strategies. "The quality of the questions changed," he recalls, "and so did the overall effectiveness of my teaching. Suddenly the kids weren't just seeing the solution to a problem, they were seeing the thinking behind that solution."

The number of wireless networks has more than quadrupled in the last five years, and wireless connectivity is now available in 45 percent of all schools. Meanwhile, according to Market Data Retrieval's The K-12 Technology Review 2005, the ratio of students to classroom computers remains stuck at 3-to-8. It hasn't budged for a year.

For digital-age children, hands-on computing is a must-have skill and an entrée to a decent job. Three or four aging computers on a classroom shelf doesn't begin to provide the access these children need. Going wireless has a price tag-but opting for the status quo could prove more costly in the long run.

"The benefits to wireless are mobility for children and their teachers, the move toward one-to-one computing, and the ease of adding more users to the network," says Keshon Morgan, technology specialist at CDW Government Inc. As a leading supplier of brand-name Information Technology (IT) products and services to educators, CDW-G has helped a number of school districts move into the wireless age.

A report from the Emerging Technologies Committee of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) examined the implementation of wireless local area network (WLAN) technologies at eight K-12 schools. When CoSN researchers asked technology providers and educators why school districts increasingly favor WLAN solutions, four compelling reasons emerged:

  1. Mobility: Users of a variety of hardware could roam freely on campus while remaining connected to the school's network.
  2. Flexibility: Portables or older buildings with hard-to-access walls could be connected to the network without retrofitting. Lab locations and classroom setups also could be changed frequently and easily without reconfiguring computer networks.
  3. Savings: Schools saved money by not having to wire or rewire, and saved space by replacing hard-wired labs with wireless mobile labs.
  4. Expandability: By adding on to existing networks rather than replacing the wired with the wireless, districts could expand their options without losing their initial investment in infrastructure.

Hinsdale Township High School District 86, in Hinsdale, IL, an early adopter of wireless technology, has two high schools-Central High School (2,500 students) and South High School (1,900 students). The district spent years creating an infrastructure: They tested hardware (giving students laptops, fiber optics, and clustered servers) and were constantly on the lookout for the next step-i.e., the next techno-pedagogical advance that would make teaching more effective and learning more interesting. Although the district first implemented wireless in 1999, it wasn't until Tim Hohman, director of technology for the district, encountered the tablet PC that he fully embraced the technology.

"Once anybody sees this in action," he says, "it's so natural. You're not tied to the front of the room."

With the help of CDW-G, Hohman brought in more than 300 tablet PCs to replace desktop computers for faculty members, and 250 more to distribute to students in selected

courses. Today, the district uses a Novell NetWare 6 clustered environment, with storage area networks and gigabyte fiber. It has over 1,400 PCs, several hundred Palm-based devices, and more than 4,500 users. Several miles of cable, dozens of hubs, and numerous other networking devices link all the machines together.

CDW-G was instrumental in setting up the system. In fact, that's a big part of what CDW-G does: help to develop a district or school technology plan, and provide people who will install, guide, and advise the school IT staff through the process. And because CDW-G is a distributor with over 100,000 different products, the company is able to choose the "best of breed" and the most fitting for each school setting-and ship it within 24 hours. For Hinsdale, CDW-G selected the Toshiba Protégé M200 Tablet PC, a convertible notebook/tablet with built-in wireless connectivity. CDW-G also acquired the projectors and printers to create a "seamless technology environment."

The real marvel, of course, is in the classroom. Teachers (see the photo of math teacher Richard Kick instructing a ninth-grade class using the Toshiba Tablet PCs) walk around the room holding the tablet, checking over students' work, helping them draw graphs, write equations, and highlight parts of speech. Students write their notes on the pads and save them for later. With the use of LCD projectors, teachers can highlight individual students' work and use it as an example for the rest of the class. All of Hinsdale's students have accounts on the network, along with Novell GroupWise 6 E-mail accounts.

Minutes away from Hinsdale is the Avery Coonley School: a private K-8 school for academically gifted students. Currently, every Avery Coonley student and teacher in grades 4-8 has a Zire 72 handheld and a palmOne wireless keyboard. Students use these systems to:

  • Take quizzes
  • Share scientific data
  • Write and edit stories
  • Schedule appointments
  • Write memos and lists
  • Fill in calendars with homework assignments
  • Set alarms to remind themselves of deadlines

This past June, all 35 Avery Coonley teachers received their own Toshiba tablets for use this summer and in ensuing years. Now we're talking voice recognition, translation of script to print, and individual mentoring. Director of Technology Joe Janovjak calls the tablets-along with projectors-the delivery system of the future. "We're putting children in charge of their own little world," he says. "We're giving them more responsibility, and providing an environment with fewer barriers to learning."

Adam Fischer, director of information services and technology for Kent School, has been working with wireless technology since 1999. Initially, he designed and built wireless "suitcases," gradually adding access points to the campus-beginning in the library and study areas. Today, every incoming Kent student purchases a tablet for about $2,000 that's loaded with the latest Microsoft Office suite, antivirus software, as well as tablet editions of XP Professional and Office One Note.

The school has special financial arrangements for families that can't afford the cost.

There are computers everywhere at Kent. Math teacher Nadire uses a convertible HP TC4200 Tablet PC and a wireless Linksys Presentation Player to display equations. He annotates PowerPoint slides with sticky notes. He switches back and forth from mouse to stylus. Physics teacher Peter Goodwin's students e-mail their homework to him, and because they note their solutions step-by-step, he can identify precisely where they've made mistakes. Fischer relies on CDW-G for help with choosing the hardware and software, for delivering the equipment, and for providing training and technical assistance.

Barbara Crystal, who works in K-12 public relations for CDW-G, points out, "Wireless technology-portable computing-is more accessible." Students don't have to be moved to a computer class in order to access the computer. Instead, the computer comes to the students-virtually anywhere (see the cart in the photo). And administrators can more easily keep up with the vast amounts of tasks required by such policies as the No Child Left Behind Act.

Besides, says Chris Rother, CDW-G vice president of education and government sales, a 1-1 computer-to-student ratio is now the goal of many schools: "They want to treat the computer like a pencil."

Charlie Flynn, technology coordinator for Lee Public Schools in western Massachusetts, thinks that "wireless has great possibilities," but that too many schools and districts see wireless as a "cheap fix" and haven't begun to explore the potential for security problems. He says that resources like CDW-G, with their free technical assistance, are invaluable for anticipating problems and taking steps to prevent them.

Wireless Protective Access (WPA), the top-of-the-line security system, uses strong encryption algorithms and a built-in authentication service for both the user and the server. The good news, says CDW-G technology specialist Morgan, is that with the current security and authentication protocols in place, "it is extremely difficult to compromise a WLAN."

So, you say you might be interested in wireless for your school? Then you need to do your homework. Work with people like those at CDW-G to determine your needs, your budget, and the trade-offs. Where are your school's access points? How far do they extend? And what kind of security system-WPA or something a tad less rigorous-makes sense?

Educate yourself. Avery Coonley's Janovjak says that if you're thinking about a wireless system," try to visit places that are using it already." And when you've finally set up your infrastructure, have teachers change one lesson at a time to adapt to the new technology. "Change is always difficult," he says, "but the benefits will far outweigh the difficulties."

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