Vanderbilt Wi-Fi: Blocked When Needed

By Naomi Graychase

June 01, 2005

Wireless for students isn't a given. This law school went beyond a commercial gateway deployment to develop a system putting professors in charge of classroom Internet access.

Last year, administrators at Vanderbilt University's highly ranked Law School in Nashville, Tenn., found themselves with a problem. They wanted to make Wi-Fi available to students in classrooms, but they didn't want students to use that access for unrelated tasks like instant messaging or watching streaming video, which would distract them or their classmates from the task at hand.

At first, the university's IT team attempted a hardware workaround.

"We were aiming different wireless antennae, trying not to let it reach into the building," says Jason Bradley, Senior Systems Administrator at Vanderbilt Law. "But it was hit and miss at best."

It quickly became apparent that a better solution was needed. That solution was Bluesocket's WG-2100 Wireless Gateway, which the university implemented last August.

"With Bluesocket, we've been able to have pinpoint precision," says Bradley. "Students right outside the classroom in a study area are not affected. We didn't find any other solutions that were close to that type of solution."

With more than 450 clients in the education market worldwide, Bluesocket is no stranger to the needs of this particular demographic.

"We've got a little gray hair in this market," says Dave Danielson, Vice President of Marketing at Bluesocket. "The people who started Bluesocket were very smart. They said, 'We're gonna make sure we get a product to market quickly. We are going to handle the basic needs of a group of people who are using wireless first.' They looked around and said, 'Who's using wireless first?' It was education. They're the most fluent wireless market that's out there. We solve their needs. We provide security. We keep it safe, but keep it simple."

With Bluesocket's WG-2100 Wireless Gateway providing security and authentication, the law school's need for a secure, high-bandwidth, dynamic WLAN was met, but it was still faced with one major obstacle—how to make changes on the fly so that Wi-Fi access in classrooms could easily be blocked (or permitted) on a minute-by-minute basis in order to cater to the wishes of each member of the faculty. Unable to find a viable software-based solution on the market, Bradley and one local developer created ClassNET, the perfect answer to the University's problem.

"Oftentimes, our class schedules change. There are cancellations, make-ups. We needed to be able to work around that change and make our programming work with it," says Bradley. "John Mott and I did the back-end programming work to interface between our class scheduling systems and the standard API interface that Bluesocket publishes to allow third party apps to interface with the hardware. We did the logic behind it, and John put it to practice in just two days."

Before Bluesocket and ClassNET, all students in all Vanderbilt University Law School classes had unfettered Internet access, a fact which delighted some students and faculty, and bothered others. Now, the simple ClassNET Web interface allows professors to make granular or semester-long choices. Members of the faculty can allow broad or limited Internet access on certain class dates, all semester, or not at all.

"They all have a podium equipped with Net access and a computer," says Bradley. "So the faculty member could go to ClassNET, and in 60 seconds could allow his or her students to have Internet access. The ClassNET system for blocking updates every minute, because there is nearly zero server impact. Professors can make in-class split-second decisions. If they want students to be able to view this case on Westlaw, they just check a box and the class can go and look."

Other institutions of higher learning have contacted Bradley about the ClassNET solution he's invented, but he has no plans to profit from the software he and Mott developed.

"Our viewpoint here is we're happy to help," he says. "I certainly would help out more institutions versus trying to profit from it. The Bluesocket device has provided the functionality; we paid to have the backend programming developed. Every university will be a little different. Each will take some customization, but it certainly could be done."

Reaction to ClassNET amongst faculty and students has been mixed.

"The students' reaction was twofold," says Bradley. "They understood why they had to start authenticating themselves. But blocking during class time, the majority didn't care for that. They felt, 'I'm an adult. I pay my tuition. I should be able to do what I want in class.'"

Faculty, for the most part, have been in favor of the change.

"There was no faculty member who completely objected to the implementation," says Bradley. "Because if they didn't mind their students having full Internet access during class, they could just allow it to happen."

The system, which cost roughly $15,000 to implement (including ClassNET development costs), is maintained by the Vanderbilt Law School's IT team. No extra staff was hired, and maintenance costs are limited to the annual $200 SSL certificate for the device. On an average day, it serves 400-500 users, with an average of 150 users at any given minute.

"It's virtually self-sufficient," says Bradley. "There are the occasions where we have to utilize some staff time to perhaps hold the hand of a professor or instruct support staff on how to use it. But that's only five minutes per person. Once they're trained, the Web interface is point-and-click. There's almost no management needed. It's been incredibly stable. Since it went online August 1st, 2004, it's had no problems. It has multiple authentication layers, so even if one server is down, it's quite redundant."

According to Danielson, the ease of use and satisfaction Vanderbilt has experienced is par for the course. "It's extremely typical," he says. "I've had some clients tell us that we're like the old Ronco commercials: 'Set it and forget it.'"

Looking forward, Bluesocket is planning to deploy more outdoor municipal networks.

"We're going through a revolution in the way people access the Internet," says Danielson. "And being in the middle of that is a fun place to be."

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