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Wireless Integration: A New Kind of Computer Lab

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.


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