Wi-Fi Schools of the Future

By Amy Mayer

June 04, 2008

Not even a decade into a new century, 21st century schools are already leaps and bounds ahead of their 20th century predecessors. In schools like the ones in Brevard County, Florida, Wi-Fi is being employed for a myriad of educational uses and planners believe that even Facebook could positively impact future applications.

At the start of the 20th century, classrooms contained chalkboards and desks and students sat in neat rows. But more than one hundred years later, chalk dust threatens the sensitive technologies that populate so-called 21st century classrooms. Wi-Fi infrastructure is an increasingly prominent component in these learning environments that some observers say are helping kids get and stay engaged in school.

Where once teachers planted themselves in the front of the room and students in back had to crane to see and hear, now ceiling-mounted speakers and wireless microphones carry a teacher's voice evenly to every corner of the room. A 27" television that once gave only students in the front rows a good view, has been replaced by a giant white board or screen that can display video from DVDs, the Internet, and images from any sort of document thanks to a doc camera and sophisticated projector. Students anywhere in the room should be able to see what's happening. Smart pads and student responders allow anyone in the classroom to contribute to what's being viewed and let students submit instantaneous answers to the teacher's questions.

Space race

These are some of the technologies that the Brevard County school district on Florida's "space coast" (it's near Cape Canaveral) has implemented. Bob Burns, network operations manager for the district, says the county is in year three of a ten-year effort to bring high-performance wireless technology to every classroom. The district has 86 schools with some 4,100 classrooms "and to date we have about 1900 of those classroom with the fully 21st century design," says Burns.

The backbone of that design is a Cisco Unified Network with four WISM (wireless interface service module) cards connected to a 6500 controller that monitors all the access points in this large, county-wide network. Brevard uses Cisco's 1131 APs inside and 1200 APs for external sites, including football fields and bus loops. Outdoor Wi-Fi is fun and useful, but it's the devices and applications that students can actually use in the classroom that really enhance the educational experience.

"I can tell you what we're hearing is they're more engaged now," Burns says of the students. He says his own son, a high school student, cares more about school success now that the classrooms he's in brings the world to him. When a news event happens, for example, teachers can stream live coverage into the classroom so the kids can keep up.

"These kids are now becoming a part of not what's happening yesterday, but what's happening today," Burns says. The teachers love it, too. He says the district has some floating teachers who work in different classrooms.

"They go to a room that doesn’t have it, [and] they pretty much cry." Burns adds that discussions with classroom teachers formed the basic shopping list for the new technologies. The district also provided training for teachers to get them quickly up to speed.

Ahead of the pack

Chris Kozup, Cisco's senior manager with mobility solutions, says the company has long been involved in educational deployments.

"Education tends to blaze the trail a little bit in terms of their interest in adopting emerging technologies," he says.

Unlike a large corporation, which Kozup says may be weary of trying something new, schools tend to be less conservative. Right now, that's correlating with a growing interest in the 802.11n standard, as well as Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi).

"We see education as really being some of the earlier adopters of these technologies because they are looking for innovative solutions," says Kozup.

Burns says five schools in his district are leveraging the Wi-Fi infrastructure through migration to wireless VoIP phones, which reduces the number of landlines the district has to pay for.

Kozup says the hardware Brevard County has is Cisco's answer to large-scale deployments, particularly where a centralized controller is desired. For smaller school deployments, he recommends the 4400 series wireless LAN controller.

"The 4400's probably the most flexible platform," he says.

Looking to the future

In both small schools and large, Kozup says the interest in Wi-Fi comes from a broad range of districts. And he's already looking ahead to what the next generation of school WLANs might entail—more intelligent networks.

"The first thing that I think we'll see is really a transformation in some respects of the network," says Kozup.

He describes a technology that would allow individual devices, such as a student's laptop, to receive information directly from the network. Big brother fears aside—users would have to opt-in—the idea is that a student could open up a laptop in the cafeteria and immediately that laptop would get from the network the location of other devices which, ostensibly, would be indicative of their owners' locations. Taking this one step further, that network intelligence could automatically send an "I'm busy" message from any device currently in the library while other devices in the cafeteria might send a "Come talk to me about…" message.

"The idea [is] that we're opening the network to allow for a common, consistent way for that intelligence to be passed to the application," says Kozup.

An non-educational social networking application, such as Facebook with its myriad widgets might seem the most well-poised at the moment for such an opening, but who knows what the future will bring.

For Bob Burns in Brevard County, the focus is on bringing all of his schools, new and old alike, up to the so-called “Sunrise Standard,” named for the first elementary school in the district to attain the new technologies in all of its classrooms. He's pleased with the district's progress so far, and with the fact that he's able to share his experience with colleagues from other communities who come calling. 

"We like being a showcase," he says.

For more on educational deployments around the country, read "Big WLAN on Campus."

For more on Cisco's Chris Kozup, read "Industry Insiders: Chris Kozup."

Amy Mayer is a freelance writer and independent radio producer based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Read and listen to her work at her website.



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