Wireless Integration: A New Kind of Computer Lab
- By Kathleen Schwarz, Sean L. McGrath
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Blackmer, H. (undated) Passepartout: Mobile Electronic Classrooms For Washington
& Lee University. Washington & Lee University. [Online] Available:
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]