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 locations.

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 wired.

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 wireless access.

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 their habits?

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 class?

There is one faculty member in the Psychology Department, who, because of the wireless network did radically alter the way he teaches one class. He acquired 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.

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