T.H.E. Journal Focus

May 5, 2011

Taking Wireless Networks to the Limits of Learning

In August 2010, just as the school year began, Greater Atlanta Christian School distributed 1,270 Apple MacBooks to junior and senior high school students on a single campus and waited for them all to hit the wireless network. Each student already had a wireless handheld iPod Touch device; the addition of laptops would have a significant impact on the wireless network.

This may sound like a prescription for disaster but, in fact, it turned out to be a prescription for success. A week later the school president paid a complimentary phone call to the school’s director of technology, Dave Bennett. The MacBooks had fired up and connected flawlessly to the wireless network that week, and have continued to do so since, Bennett reports—just another achievement in the school’s ongoing efforts to build a seamless and powerful wireless network to support 21st century teaching and learning.

With nearly 2,000 students in grades four through 12 spread across a 75-acre campus with some 25-plus buildings, the independent Christian school in Atlanta, Georgia has an aggressive wireless program in place for serving its students. Wireless coverage is now available  in classrooms and meeting areas, as well as in a dedicated science hall, family gathering areas, and some high-density outdoor areas such as athletic fields.

The school’s 2:1 iLearn initiative, implemented two years ago as part of the national Partnership for 21st Century Learning Skills framework, calls for two devices per student—a laptop and a wireless handheld device. All teachers also have a MacBook or an Apple Touch device—in fact, teachers were the first to receive wireless devices when the program was first rolled out. The task is to support the current 4,000+ wireless devices across a campus environment that not only requires coverage, but high density, and a level of reliability that allows teachers to leverage online learning resources without worrying about the network. The wireless service must be available indoors, outdoors, and be deployable in a cost-effective manner. The network must also scale well, Bennett says, as he expects wireless needs on the campus to triple in the next few years as more devices come on campus and usage of the devices increases.

Bennett attributes much of the wireless program’s success to his school’s partnership—and partnership is the exact term he stresses—with the wireless network company Xirrus. As the school has gradually rolled out its sophisticated, fast, and secure new 802.11n wireless network over the past two years, Bennett says that Xirrus “has promised us they could and would do the job, and they have.”

Before introducing the program, Greater Atlanta Christian School had a traditional wireless network, with access points in each wireless classroom. Supporting the 2:1 learning initiative meant increasing coverage across campus, and called for greater density, coverage, and bandwidth. While a traditional wireless solution would have required an access point, or two per classroom, Xirrus engineered a technology that employs sophisticate devices called Wi-Fi Arrays. In their design the company leveraged  the same technology deployed in cell towers to solve the user density and coverage issues the cellular world went through 15 years ago. Each Xirrus Array contains 4, 8, 12, or 16 802.11abg+n radios coupled to a high-gain directional antenna system. Each radio can be programmed independently for band, channel, and signal strength to offer a level of coverage and capacity that is four to eight times the capability of traditional APs.

Fewer devices to support, Bennett points out, means less labor to install, maintain, and support the wireless network, plus fewer cables to run and fewer gigabit switch ports to purchase. He has been able to cover the campus with a third the number of traditional access points he estimates would have been needed. Bennett uses the XN8, with 8-radio models as his primary solution, with a few XN4s ( 4-radio units) to cover less dense areas such as administrative offices.

For the initial installation and for each increase in Arrays, Xirrus has provided an active site survey in which company technicians use a portable Array to help determine optimal placement of each device. That site survey, Bennett says, is another Xirrus benefit. “They are very aggressive in the site survey, to absolutely insure no dead spots.”

The school is getting ready to add another 750 wireless devices to the campus for the next school year, when iPads, MacBooks, desktop iMacs and MacBook Pros are distributed to elementary school students to enhance their digital learning environment. As the school continues to blossom—it has grown from just 150 students in grades 7 through 11 when it opened back in 1968, to the second largest private school in Georgia—Bennett expects wireless demand to continue to grow as more client devices and education applications enter the campus. With tablet computers such as Apple’s iPad device becoming more pervasive, “students are not just consuming, but generating and uploading,” he says. “All of those things take bandwidth.” Bennett also sees digital textbooks looming in the not-too-distant future, and anticipates more wireless demand to download that content.

“This is anytime, anywhere learning,” he says. “I like to say that we’re capturing information at the POL—point of learning—with these devices. It makes learning fun, and discipline takes a back seat to excitement.”  

If you are interested in deploying a high performance Wi-Fi solution, please contact Xirrus at: info@xirrus.com


2101 Corporate Center Drive
Thousand Oaks, CA 91320