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Getting unwired at school

When asked about the advantages of a Wi-Fi setup in school, everyone who has one points to the same things: convenience and efficiency, in all their various forms.

It was barely a generation ago that only the toniest universities had a “computer lab”–usually a bank of IBM XTs and a dot-matrix printer. That schools and technology have come a long way together is evinced by the growing presence of wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) access–a perk that’s currently most prevalent in colleges and universities, but that’s slowly making inroads toward the K-12 realm as well.

About $500 million was spent on wireless technologies for schools in the 2001-02 school year; that amount doubled the following year, and nearly doubled again in 2003-04. That tells us that educators and administrators alike are quickly seeing the value in setting up access points and hotspots throughout their schools to better enable students to go wireless.

So why all the fuss over Wi-Fi in schools? It’s a reasonable question, especially given the drastic budget cuts that many school systems have had to face. But it’s an easier question to answer when one considers the peripatetic existence of the typical student. This computer user isn’t anchored to a desk all day, and she might wend her way from the classroom to the library to the chem lab in the space of an hour. Having a hotspot waiting there can only improve her efficiency and give her access to more information more quickly and conveniently.

Space is the place

When asked about the advantages of a Wi-Fi setup, everyone who has one points to the same things: convenience and efficiency, in all their various forms.

“The benefits are numerous,” says Marcus Muster, director of computer services at the Kiski School, a boarding school near Pittsburgh. “Expanding the network to hard-to-wire locations is one. Another benefit, and probably the best from an academic standpoint, is that we have given classroom space back to the instructor. In the wired rooms, we need more of a fixed table and chair set-up. In the wireless classrooms, we can go back to a traditional, movable desk/chair combo.”

Other benefits include the inherent mobility that a wireless setup offers to students and teachers, ubiquitous access to data, an escape from the expenses and snafus that invariably come with anything wired–and, of course, the cachet that comes with being on the cutting edge.

“Perhaps the biggest benefit about going wireless is that you are meeting the expectations of incoming students,” says Stacy Pennington, associate database analyst at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. “We are expecting approximately 80 percent of our incoming class of 2008 to bring laptops to school, and these students, most of whom are pretty computer-savvy, expect to have wireless access in various places around campus.”

Some wireless headaches

As with any emerging technology, bringing Wi-Fi to schools means learning as you go, and that can sometimes make for an uphill battle.

“The most significant challenge is load balancing–getting the right number of access points in the right locations for the right number of people,” says Muster. “Network security is another challenge; we must authenticate the wireless user. That’s getting better with the newer, secured, more robust wireless standards available today.”

“We saw some initial usage and operations errors at client workstations,” says Steven Organiscak, manager of the Program Management Office at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “We also had rogue access points causing disruption and intervention, as well as other security issues.”

Other challenges encountered by schools going wireless include a lack of compatibility with the network interface cards on laptops students and staff bring to school with them, and encryption issues with routers. Then there are the inevitable training headaches.

“The number of steps that are required to configure a laptop for wireless access can be daunting for a novice user,” says Pennington. “While everything may be perfectly documented, we currently have to do most of the wireless client configurations for our users.”

As for the security issues, some schools have worked around them by developing a network that transmits data worthless to anyone without the proper credentials. Rhodes College has a wireless network that is authenticated and encrypted so that only students and staff can access it. All of Rhodes’ access points are connected to the switches in each of the buildings via Ethernet, which is then connected upstream via fiber to an authentication server.

Says Pennington: “As the entire wireless industry circles around the 802.11i security protocol, you will see the process for accessing authenticated, secure wireless access points become simpler and simpler.”

The cost of progress

For a school of any appreciable size (especially a college campus), Wi-Fi is becoming a necessary choice. Thanks to its potential outdoor range of hundreds of feet, a relatively small school such as Life Chiropractic College West in San Francisco can set up only seven access points offering its 700 students free-roaming Internet access that covers 90 percent of the school grounds.

By contrast, Case Western Reserve University has an access point for virtually every one of its 1,400 students. Other schools are taking a more moderate approach: Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. recently spent $300,000 installing more than 300 access points on campus to be used by its 17,000 students. This required students to supply their own computers and buy the $150 wireless network interface cards needed to gain access to the school’s WLAN.

“An industrial-strength access point is around $1,000,” says Jim Cunningham, manager of IT infrastructure for the Pennsylvania College of Technology. “Depending on the location, getting power and a wired network cable installed to the access point might cost another $100 to $200. A typical four-story classroom building would probably need 12 to 16 access points to provide 100 percent coverage.”

Clearly, Wi-Fi adoption isn’t cheap, and the costs involved inevitably dictate the level of commitment the school makes. Some expensive private schools–such as the Kiski School–include the cost of a laptop in its tuition fees, allowing students to go wireless anywhere from their rooms to the football field.

Private schools might have an easier time swinging such luxury. But in school districts beholden to a state tax base, not everyone comes to school with an iBook in their backpack, and all those $150 routers and $1,000 access points look extravagant when the gym teacher only works part-time. For that reason, Wi-Fi has so far been shown to be prohibitive for many public K-12 schools, especially public schools.

School budgets and shifting standards being what they are, some educators are reluctant to jump into the Wi-Fi fray. Many schools have gone with the narrower (but cheaper) bandwidth of 802.11b, only to find themselves needing to upgrade to 802.11g when they discover that an 802.11b signal starts degrading when more than 15 students are using the same access point–and how many classrooms have only 15 kids in them?

But most experts agree that the cost of Wi-Fi coverage is dropping by the day. Wi-Fi radio chips that were $100 in 2000 now cost $8, and industry competition will only drive down the cost of hardware. For schools that can wait for prices to level off, the wireless classroom might not be a pipe dream much longer.

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