A New Kind of Academic Freedom

"Anywhere" Computing Brings Challenges

The latest push in mobile computing also brings challenges. Encouraging students to use mobile devices—or even issuing them outright, as the University of Minnesota has done for years—is a start, but pervasive wireless is the new holy grail. UMC began providing laptops to all students in 1993, making it the first "laptop campus" in the country. The challenge now is to empower all those students and staff with portable computers by making more and more of the campus wireless.

UMC currently has selective wireless access—dorms and some classrooms, for example—using the 802.11b standard. Now, "802.11g is in the works," according to Dan Lim, assistant professor and information technology management director at the school. "Cost is an issue too, [but] we are phasing in wireless."

A big challenge with deploying and maintaining wireless networks is rapidly changing standards that affect speed. Upgrading a network can be costly, with hundreds or thousands of access points across even a small campus. At Dartmouth, for example, the campus offers wireless access virtually anywhere through a network overlay that uses the 802.11b standard. Levine says that the school, a comparatively small space, started with 476 access points and maintains over 600 now. Dartmouth started its wireless project "in earnest" in October 2000, Levine says—"and you’re never really done." To move to offering the faster 802.11g, along with backward compatibility to a and b as well, means the school will now have to upgrade its network.

Offering enough wireless access points to keep the network relatively pervasive is challenging—and gets more so as bandwidth increases, since faster wireless speeds require a greater concentration of access points. Carnegie Mellon currently maintains roughly 700 access points across 105 acres and four million square feet of interior space. In order to move to a higher-bandwidth design like 802.11g, they’ll need to triple the number of access points to perhaps 2,000. Forget about upgrading—simply managing that shear number of access points can be a challenge.

"Wireless is a very distributed type of network, with equipment in closets, ceilings, hallways," explains Chuck Bartel, Carnegie Mellon’s director of network services, as well as project director for the school’s Wireless Andrew initiative. "Managing a 2,000-device network spread out across 4 million square feet and close to 65 buildings—that starts to become a bit more difficult."

"Wireless is a very distributed type of network, with equipment in closets, ceilings, hallways..."

Potential in PDAs

Handheld devices like PDAs represent untapped potential on many campuses. Some IT administrators say that students don’t seem to use wireless PDAs much, favoring a single wireless device—the laptop—instead. On other campuses, like the University of South Dakota (see sidebar), PDAs are actively encouraged.

Technology "is just getting smaller and more mobile all the time," says Peg Schultz, the director of instructional and client services at Pomona College outside L.A.—and as that happens, devices become more and more popular with students. "We’re going to probably have to think of PDA access as we migrate to [Microsoft] Exchange 2003. We’re [seeing] more PDAs that are wireless—people wanting to pick up e-mail or surf. As security improves, we’ll find many more people jumping on the bandwagon."

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