Wireless Integration: A New Kind of Computer Lab

Computer labs aren’t always good collaboration spaces. The conventional campus computer lab is designed with workstations lined up lockstep in rows across the room. Limitations of network and access to electricity usually require that rows are made parallel to a whiteboard, restricting an instructor’s movement to a few square feet in the 'front' of the room. This orientation gives the instructor a full rear-view of the computer monitors and the tops of students’ heads. The students are forced to look over and around the monitors, straining for a glimpse of the instructor and the notes on the board. This type of workspace is perfectly fine for individuals working alone (as in a 'public' lab); it is not very conducive to discussion or engaging with fellow students. New models are needed to support the evolution of computers for collaboration, communication, and learning tools, creating the possibility for new types of interactions.

At the University of California, Riverside, the development of campus wireless computing network services has offered a unique opportunity. These new wireless technologies have allowed a reinvention of the physical space for a computer lab, with a greater emphasis on communication and meeting diverse computing and collaboration needs in one highly flexible environment. The Graduate School of Education (GS'E) has developed a hybrid computer lab, including fixed desktops as would be expected, but incorporating built-in accommodation for laptops, including both the department’s mobile Mac and PC labs as well as the students' own laptops. Consequently, this lab is multiple-platform and variable in size, according to the nature of the activities taking place there.

Planning Partners
A development that drove the design of the Hybrid Lab was the shift in emphasis in student services delivered by the campus Computing and Communications department ('C&C'). While the student population has dramatically increased, available space has decreased, despite almost constant voter-financed construction on campus. Rather than allocate shrinking space and local funding resources to the development of fixed-seat, open student computer labs, C&C accelerated the implementation of a campus-wide wireless network. With sufficient wireless coverage and a high percentage of student-owned laptops, almost any location could serve as a student lab.

Coincidentally, Sproul Hall was one of the first areas to receive this new service. Early on, as the Hybrid Lab plans were taking form, C&C committed to providing sufficient wireless and wired networking to accommodate the additional load the lab would generate.

Planning for this computer lab was begun as part of two larger renovations of Sproul Hall, the building that houses the UCR GS'E. The first was as part of an administrative redistribution of research and classroom space in the building by the UCR Academic Planning and Budget office. The campus architect and planners developed the initial plans (and the subsequent revisions) for the actual physical space in this 40-year-old building.

The second renovation that affected the planning and implementation of the Hybrid Lab was the construction in the same building of the 'UCR Collaboratory,' a graduate statistics lab that is a cooperative effort among several of the schools at UCR. It was apparent that plans for this high-end graduate-computing lab would profoundly impact the basic infrastructure of the Sproul Hall (power, air conditioning, and wired network). We participated in the Collaboratory Advisory Committee to develop concurrent and complementary plans, and to collectively engage the administration in budget discussions about infrastructure in Sproul Hall.

Since the GS'E built their first formal instructional computer lab in 1995, many lessons have been learned about delivering content in a computer lab. At several points during the planning process for the new Hybrid Lab, faculty was consulted about effective teaching strategies in such spaces, and we developed a 'faculty wish list' of desirable features.

The Need and Purpose
In the past several years, the GS'E has acquired several 'mobile labs,' collections of laptops used for instruction and data collection at various locations. These mobile labs include: (1) the iBook Cart, a set of 14 iBook laptops and Airport located on a cart, (2) Title VII Dell Laptops, a set of ten maintained for use in Bilingual Teaching seminars and for bilingual education research, and (3) Classroom Technology Kits, mobile kits used by student teachers in their K-12 classrooms and for collecting and creating artifacts used for their electronic portfolios. There are also several student teachers and GS'E graduate students using their own personal 'guest' laptops on campus on a regular basis. It is a significant challenge to set up mobile labs when power and network are required, as in multimedia work—particularly in older buildings where these are sparse commodities at best. There was a clear need for a location for collaborative work on laptops where power, network, printing, and a projector could be made easily available.

Various programs have technology requirements that draw on the Hybrid Lab. GS'E has entered into agreements to deliver graduate course content to other university campuses using video conferencing as part of a joint doctoral program. The integration of elements to support video conferencing (i.e., light and sound control, flexible seating, and good sight lines for displays and camera) was an important outcome of the planning of the Hybrid Lab and also important in long-range inter-campus collaborations.

The GS'E is also in its third year of using electronic portfolios in its Teaching Credential program, and creating ePortfolios is now the culmination of the 3-quarter credential technology course. ePortfolios, as practiced at UCR, are media-rich collections of teaching artifacts for evaluation and career development. The intensive activity involved in their development, which includes digital video, has outpaced the capacity of the original computer lab, which was designed primarily for instruction in statistics. A space accommodating greater computing capacity, various pieces of equipment, and higher levels of noise was required.

Design Specifications
The room design process for the Hybrid Lab spanned for several months. Several consultations with Computing and Communication administrators, the campus architect, and representatives of Academic Planning and Budget served to translate the articulated needs into specific features. Many iterations of a basic design followed, and the one chosen offered the most flexibility in meeting the purposes of the space.

Computer tables around the walls of the room would be home to the standard desktop computers. Corner units were essential to this plan, creating 'collaboration clusters' anchored by desktops in each corner. The center of the room was planned to have four tables, for various groupings that would accommodate laptop users. These could be moved around the room toward the corners for small groups or to the center for video conferences. Power and network connections were placed together on the floor for use by laptops, but also along the walls and in the ceiling for projection.

Other design considerations involved the planned installation of a video conferencing unit to facilitate graduate-level distance learning, as well as a fixed ceiling projector and white screen for standard class instruction. A 3500-lumen projector, a motorized retractable screen, a Polycom FX video conferencing unit, and a 'Sony 32' Wega TV on a special video conferencing cart would also support video conferencing. For security, the existing card lock access system used in the older computer lab would be extended to the Hybrid Lab, to provide access to students at any time using their campus ID card.

Implementation and Construction
The actual physical renovation of the room was completed in 6 weeks. Although the walls were generally left intact, additional wiring for power, network, and voice was accomplished above the ceiling and by raising the floor roughly 4 inches. The lighting was installed specifically to work with the projection screen in the room. In addition to the floor and ceiling, the walls were repainted, and new blinds installed. Before the renovation took place, cabinets were removed from the room to facilitate the make over and were re-used in the new space for storage and counter space for supplies and equipment.

The UCR C&C Network Operations, which installed the 30 Ethernet network connections in the room, completed the network configuration of the Hybrid Lab. A wireless access point ('AP') was placed adjacent to the lab. The campus network currently utilizes Cisco 350 series 802.11b AP’s, that are installed in many locations across campus. A proprietary security system has been installed, which registers a network card MAC address on a daily basis, in conjunction with a RAS account. Wireless campus access gives users standard TCP/IP access to the Internet.

Unfortunately, the original project budget, based on planning estimates with the campus Academic Planning and Budget Office, was cut by 52 percent during the first round of state budget cuts, and then again by 18 percent, leaving the project completed at 34 percent of the original funding level. The cost savings were achieved mostly in eliminating new furniture purchases, deferring the purchase of a video conferencing unit in favor of using campus-owned equipment, and purchasing refurbished desktops and server.

Spare tables and chairs were taken from various locations and reconditioned to populate the lab. To retain the original design, however, required the special corner tables. These units and a moveable instructor station were the only furniture to be purchased new. We were able to install a network printer and a 3500-lumen data/video LCD projector with a motorized screen, which can project from the instructor station, a VCR or a guest laptop.

There is sufficient seating for up to 20 laptops to access the campus network using wireless cards. The department has a few PC laptops to lend for use in the lab and 6 wireless cards to lend for guest laptops while working in the Hybrid Lab. Using wireless laptops allows unlimited flexibility in the arrangement of the room and the way that a group works in the Hybrid Lab. The instructor station can be moved to many different locations within the space and still be able to project the monitor image on the screen. There is plenty of table and counter space for computer and media equipment, and the noise from people working together, as well as video and sound editing is contained. Video conferencing using a mobile Polycom from the campus Media Services has been successful. Because of the cost, the card lock system was not extended to this space, and the Hybrid Lab is not an 'open access' lab—it can be reserved ahead for use by faculty and staff (and research projects), who can be assured of working uninterrupted.

Because the printer is configured for TCP/IP printing, we have overcome a large obstacle to guest laptops using print services in our department, and, as importantly, we can offer these services to both Mac and PC at the same time.

An extremely important product of the Hybrid Lab planning and construction has been the partnerships between Academic Planning and Budget, Computing and Communications and GS'E. The GS'E had access to a great deal of expertise and these departments have a continuing commitment to the success of the lab.

Future Plans
The GS'E Hybrid lab calls for future implementation of its own wireless access point (AP). At the present, Cisco 350 series 802.11b AP’s installed across UCR campus provide an 11Mb connection to the outside, but keep users from the internal network. The campus is currently looking to upgrade the existing 802.11b infrastructure to the newer 802.11a standard in the coming months. The new standard allows for up to 54mb speed connections, though more AP’s are needed, due to the limited range of this standard. Because of this limitation, the GS'E expects to have an AP installed directly in the room to better serve the students utilizing the wireless network. By having an 802.11a AP directly in the Hybrid lab, students will be assured a solid 54Mb connection, to provide favorable access during simultaneous downloads, video streams, and file sharing, all conditions which are possible within the lab environment.

References

Blackmer, H. (undated) Passepartout: Mobile Electronic Classrooms For Washington & Lee University. Washington & Lee University. [Online] Available: http://home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/tlrg/paspar2.html.

Griffi'en, H., Seales, W. B., and Lumpp, J.E. (1998) Teaching in Realtime Wireless Classroom, Proceedings of the 1998 Frontiers in Education Conference, November 1998. Reprinted [Online] Available: http://www.dcs.uky.edu/~wc/publication/1296/1296.html.

Griffi'en, H., Seales, W. B., and Lumpp, J.E. (1998) Wireless Computing in the Classroom Second Quarter Progress Report. [Online] Available: http://www.dcs.uky.edu/~wc/reports/q2/report/report.html.

Varsheny, U. and Vetter, R. (2000) Emerging Mobile and Wireless Networks. Communications of the ACM, 43, 6 (June 2000), pp 73-81. Reprinted [Online] Available: http://www.cisp.org/imp/june_2000/06_00vetter.htm.

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