Special Series: Technology and the CEO >> Part 4 Wireless on Campus

Presidents

In the fourth part of our series, a look at how wireless computing can provide convenience, connectivity, and an air of being on the cutting edge of technology.

By David R. Black

The advent of wireless computing has provided educational communities at all levels the speed and flexibility for connectivity once thought nearly impossible without traditional wired Ethernet installations. This relatively new technology raises several cautions, however, that need to be examined before making the decision to integrate wireless with existing infrastructure, or building a network from the ground up. We must also consider how this effort can be applied, what hardware is used in sending and receiving wireless, and most importantly, how the learning process can be enhanced with its use. Philip Mugridge, director of academic computing for Eastern University (PA), recently addressed these issues for EU, and his thoughts are behind the following contexted responses.

Campuses with older Ethernet installations are actually in an excellent position to take advantage of wireless technology.

Let’s first examine some of the basic terminologies, standards, and hardware. Wireless involves the use of radio waves transmitted and received through access points located in strategic areas of a room or building. The access point is hardwired back to a switch or hub, which relays the data to a server or out to the Internet. Desktops or laptops are equipped with wireless network cards which send and receive data to the access points at specified frequencies within established protocols and standards.

Three wireless standards are in use today: 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. Most widely used is 802.11b, commonly known as Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi. It provides data transmission comparable to a typical wired Ethernet connection at 11Mbps. Its range is around 300 feet, making it suitable for most home and small business installations and LANs.

The most recent standard, 802.11g, builds on the previous two protocols and is backwards-compatible with both .11a and .11b. It can transfer data at more than 54Mbps, up to 275 feet. Both .11b and .11g standards work on the 2.4Ghz frequency. Hardwired installations utilizing Ethernet cable (with Category 5, 5e, or 6 wiring) provide the safest, most dependable and secure method for sending data over long or short distances. Because the cable is shielded and installed in ceilings, walls, and under floors, it is far less subject to outside interference, and gives consistent data transmission rates.

The Ethernet wire is connected to a desktop or laptop computer on one end, and a patch panel and switch on the other. The switches are then connected by fiber (or in older installations, copper) to central servers. Installation is labor-intensive, often requiring extensive planning to overcome older building design. Costs vary, but an outlay of $125 to $175 per jack is typical, in addition to costs for switches, racks, and switch closets.

Caveats

Ethernet installations are essential for high-traffic, ultra-secure applications. Engineering, design, database, and other traditional uses require the bandwidth and stability inherent in Ethernet, which is a mature technology. Wireless, on the other hand, is an emerging process. While security is rapidly evolving to meet the needs of all administrators, there are still shortcomings that may allow unauthenticated users to “sniff” for a wireless network, and access it unannounced and unknown to IT staff, with resulting loss of data or damage to the network.

Wireless speed also deteriorates somewhat as the number of users increases on each access point. As with technology in general, there is also the probable cost involved in upgrading backbone switches to accommodate newer security needs and improvements in desktop and laptop configurations. These expenses, however, would be necessary whether or not wireless was installed. This is not to say that wireless cannot be effectively utilized in a university setting. Campuses with older Ethernet installations are actually in an excellent position to take advantage of wireless technology. Most universities, in the rush to become wired in the early ’90s, installed Ethernet in each residence hall room, classroom, lab, lounge, café, and library on campus.

With this installed base in place, adding access points in strategic locations (to service the entire student population) builds upon that investment. If a residence hall room, for instance, has one or two jacks and three to four students, wireless access points (at an approximate cost of $500 each, per floor, versus $250 to $350 per room, for Ethernet) would enable all students and visitors with wireless laptops or desktops to access the network without cables or in-room switches. Adding wireless to a popular gathering spot enables students to check e-mail, send messages and files to friends or professors across campus, and allows collaboration on a scale impossible even three or four years ago.

In the classroom, wireless is now an essential part of providing a well-rounded education.
Side Benefits of Wireless

The growing pervasiveness of this technology has simple origins: As consumers, incoming students may have been accustomed to it at home, if their high-speed connections involve wireless routers and network cards (very few homes have been hardwired for access). If they stop in for coffee at a local café, or venture into a well-equipped public or university library, chances are they can surf freely.

In short, students may not necessarily see wireless as the deciding factor in choosing a school, but those schools with wireless offer a certain comfort level and project an image of providing leading, if not bleeding-edge, technology for potential attendees. Adequate bandwidth in the residence halls, coupled with sufficient classroom technology including wireless, is now an essential part of providing a well-rounded education.

When was the last time you saw a college (or junior high, or high school) student without a cell phone? Again, familiarity with portable wireless devices allows most students to embrace the “unplugged” world. Add to this the proliferation of PDAs, wireless printers, keyboards, and mice, and a student could conceivably go through four years of college without tripping over a wire.

Most important, wireless is a facilitator on several levels: With proper authentication/ encryption, accessing student data from residence halls and public areas is safe. Students can thus collaborate on the Web, check course syllabi, instant message friends, send assignments to their professors, and check on the status of their laundry from their residence hall. Parents can access student accounts from home, deposit money in individual school debit accounts, and provide for their children many, many miles from home.

Pervasive computing and attendant issues follow both student and professor into the classroom. Because a laptop, tablet, or PDA in class is such a departure from the traditional notebook, paper, and pencil, some professors may be wary of the inherent distraction of Web accessibility during instruction. Browsing the Web or instant messaging a friend during a lecture can be a common occurrence; taking notes can become secondary to instant entertainment. At that point, allowing laptops in class for note-taking may not be the best answer to meeting students’ needs for technology.

It is important to recognize that technology in general (and computing in particular) has a socio-personal element that students easily integrate into their lives. Collaboration is as important to today’s users as the “blog,” a highly individualized response to thoughts, opinions, and trends on the Web. Contrast this to the first generation of computing, which saw a much longer period of adjustment to what essentially were business tools and the occasional electronic bulletin board.

Some professors may be wary of Web distraction.

Wireless computing, whether incorporated into new construction or added to existing structures, can revitalize classroom instruction. If laptops are viewed as portals rather than notetaking word processing tools, opportunities arise for the entire class to concentrate on the same statistical data, database, or political Web site while being challenged by the professor to solve the daily dilemma. Facts can be checked instantly, curriculums viewed (MIT’s Open CourseWare, a revolutionary concept wherein hundreds of actual classes are offered free on the Web, is a good example; ocw.mit.edu/index.html), and opinions shaped and changed as the discussion develops.

All of this can be facilitated by a wireless laptop cart wheeled into a standard classroom equipped with an access point. Most exciting, perhaps, is the idea that the Socratic method and technology can merge seamlessly without wires. Learning can take place using tools that students have assimilated since grade school. Wireless takes the process one step further, allowing them the freedom to take those tools to the next classroom, dorm, or back home, to continue reaching for and responding to knowledge. Our challenge: to creatively channel this integral relationship between student and technology, while recognizing its potential to continually expand educational horizons.

David Black is President of Eastern University. SunGard SCT (www.sungardsct.com) is publisher of President to President: Views of Technology in Higher Education (2005), from which this article is excerpted, and is corporate sponsor of the New Presidents program. Marylouise Fennell, co-editor of President to President, is coordinator of the New Presidents program, and senior counsel to the Council of Independent Colleges (www.cic.edu). Scott D. Miller, also co-editor, is president of Wesley College (DE), and chair of the program

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