Campus-Wide Wireless: Mobility and Convergence: An Interview with Lawrence M. Levine
One of the first institutions to have a campus-wide network 15 years ago, Dartmouth
College, is still a pioneer– the college now has one of the first campus-wide
wireless networks. Here, Syllabus interviews Larry Levine, director of computing
at Dartmouth, for his insights into wireless networking on campus.
S: How long have you had a campus-wide wireless network at Dartmouth?
LML: We began our project to create wireless access throughout the campus in
November of 2000, and we had a very ambitious schedule to finish by April of
2001. So, by the end of April or early May 2001, the entire campus, indoors
and out, had what we call a wireless overlay–wireless access along with
the wired network.
S: So it’s been a little more than a year. Have you been studying what’s
happened in that year?
LML: There’s been one formal study plus a constant collection of anecdotal
data, from the mundane, where we monitor the wireless Access Points, up to social
engineering kinds of assessments. We’ve talked to various groups on campus
and elicited reports from individual users. Especially when we first installed
all of this, people would report to us about locations where they couldn’t
get a signal, or they thought the signal was weak, or they found that their
machine was bouncing between two access points...this is mostly corrective feedback.
S: Did you end up changing where you had located your APs?
LML: Yes, we did. We have more than 500 Access Points. It’s an art form
to figure out where to place them, and decide how to adjust their signal strengths–it
d'esn’t work well to simply turn all of them up to 100 percent because
they will interact with each other. There is always a lot of tweaking regarding
placement and adjustment of APs.
S: Did you come up fairly quickly with all those wireless areas?
LML: From November to April 2001, as we installed Access Points, we turned
them on. So during the five- to six-month period, the campus was lighting up,
so to speak. Every time we’d do a building or a cluster of buildings, we’d
turn them on, and leave them on.
S: Would it be easier to begin by designing AP placement into a brand new
building than to work in older buildings?
LML: Well, it would be cheaper. Putting in a wireless network, there is a lot
less physical work than g'es into a wired network, but where we found that we
had a greater expense than we had estimated was in getting wires to specific
locations in buildings for Access Points. In many cases, we had to call in an
electrical contractor and create a pathway that didn’t previously exist
because good places for Access Points are often high up and behind walls, or
on ceilings...not the typical locations where you’ll find existing network
wires. It is clear that this could be cheaper if you could have all this done
when the building was being built.
S: How did you decide where to place Access Points?
LML: There is a lot of trial and error in the process. One of the ways we did
this was to have teams of students go around and plug an AP into the nearest
network jack, with a long wire to the AP, and actually test out 2 or 3 various
S: It sounds like the word “wireless” really applies to the user
side not so much to the administrator side.
LML: Definitely. The connection from the user to the Access Point is wireless,
but the connection from the Access Point to the network backbone is typically
S: Do you consider Dartmouth to have wireless access literally everywhere?
LML: In April/May of 2001, we announced to the campus that we had reached our
target of providing wireless access throughout the campus. We issued a friendly
challenge, to find a place on campus where you could not get wireless access,
and we would make sure that access was made available there. We have access
points in places like the stadium and even at the ski area. But there were some
students who pointed out that they were sitting in the cemetery that we have
on campus and they could not get wireless there. So, we repositioned an AP on
the outside of a nearby building to cover that.
S: So you came through on your guarantee!
LML: Oh, yes. We in fact put access points in the boat house. You can paddle
around in a can'e on the Connecticut River adjacent to the campus and have good
S: How do you find that people are using wireless? You’ve had wireless
for more than a year– how are people picking up on this? How are they changing
LML: In terms of just daily living, it’s increased people’s ability
to connect with each other at any time, either through e-mail, which is the
classic method, or through instant messaging–various forms that people
use, typically AOL’s Instant Messenger. It shortens planning horizons for
meeting people and getting together.
S: But there have always been ways for people to communicate about their
meetings. What is different about this?
LML: It increases spontaneity. It allows people to communicate and make changes
and ask questions even more on the fly than they could before.
S: Do you mean for social or academic communications?
LML: It includes social things, but also students talking with faculty, or
students checking some piece of information online more readily than they did
before. We have wireless in the stacks, and even though students could walk
around the library before with their laptops, now they can be connected to the
Dartmouth network or the Internet the entire time.
S: Has teaching changed? Are their any trends there that you can identify?
LML: I don’t think that it has changed how faculty teach. For the typical
faculty, teaching is still lecture- or classroom-style. They may say “Let’s
look this up...”but they don’t, for the most part, say, “Be sure
to bring your laptop to class.”
S: Are there any departments where the wireless access may be used as a
part of the class?
LML: Yes, in the School of Business, and maybe some classes in the School of
Engineering–those are professional schools, notably.
S: Are there any cases where there is intensive use of handhelds during
There is one faculty member in the Psychology Department, who, because of the
wireless network did radically alter the way he teaches one class.
80 Handspring Prism devices with wireless sleds and uses them in an ongoing
way while he lectures, and he has students downloading information in class,
pertinent to the lecture. The students interact with the server, with each other,
and sometimes with his teaching assistant, all during the class. He did all
this specifically as a way to make students be more actively engaged with the
information while it’s being presented to them.
S: How do the students react to that? Is it pretty positive?
LML: Oh yes, they love it. Students are much more comfortable with various
kinds of gadgets–they thought that this was great, and novel and stimulating.
S: So do you find that it’s mostly the students that are picking up
on wireless communications, rather than classroom use as determined by the faculty?
LML: That’s true–there is not a lot of live teaching use with wireless.
Where the use takes place I think is outside the classroom as people do their
work and as they communicate with each other. It frees people up.
S: What about use in the dorms?
LML: Our study revealed that wireless was used more in the residence halls
than anywhere else, but that would seem to make sense with almost a 100 percent
residential campus, and a general expectation that students would be the group
making the most use of technology. All the residence halls have been completely
wired for more than 15 years. It’s not like students haven’t had network
access in their rooms or lounges before, but with wireless, they have more flexibility.
They have access in their rooms, in the hallways, on the lawn, literally wherever
they want to be.
S: Are the students bringing portable devices to campus, then?
LML: Everyone is required to have a computer. Though it d'esn’t have to
be a laptop, most of them are bringing laptops and to a certain degree, the
availability of the wireless access is driving that decision.