The Future of Education is Wireless

By Naomi Graychase

April 03, 2009

Deep pockets and a forward-looking IT staff have made the Norwood School in Bethesda, MD a place where blackboards—and even white boards--are as obsolete as rotary dial phones.

This is not your father’s grade school. Let’s face it—this probably isn’t even your kid’s grade school. Deep pockets and a forward-looking IT staff have made the Norwood School in Bethesda, MD a place where blackboards—and even white boards--are as obsolete as rotary dial phones. Instead, this well-funded, private K-8 school uses an 802.11n wireless LAN to connect every student to his or her own laptop or tablet PC, and every classroom to its own networked wireless projector.

The school, which serves over 500 kids and roughly 110 faculty and staff, has been prioritizing technology and mobility for more than a decade.

“Norwood has had a one-to-one laptop program for ten years,” says David Rossell, Administrator of Network Services and Planning for Norwood Schools. “One-to-one means there’s a laptop computer or tablet in the hands of each child. The idea is that by putting that kind of powerful tool in kids’ hands, what it does is it allows for more differentiated learning and more flexibility with education, and it is a really great all-around educational tool to work with.”

Imagining a high-tech learning environment and creating one that meets your standards are two very different things, though, as Rossell discovered.

“We had an existing WLAN that was six years old that was composed of functional Cisco 802.11b/g APs. They were okay,” says Rossell, “but as we brought more and more projectors on line—we bought Sanyos because of the software package that comes with them, which allows teachers and students to seamlessly connect wirelessly—what we found was that this was such a powerful application that we just worked on fitting all of our classrooms with the projectors.”

The projectors immediately became popular with faculty and students. But, says Rossell, the more they used the projectors, the more the equipment, the software, and the video “just generated preposterous amounts of traffic on the network.”

“Combined with all the students trying to synchronize the files…I was creating these little microcells with one AP per classroom to get enough throughput so that students could do their work and the video would work.”

But, in classrooms where time is of the essence, this stop-gap autonomous AP approach wasn’t working well enough.

“For us, when the wireless network is slow, if kids get into a classroom and the teacher loses five minutes in a 40-minute period to technical issues, it’s a significant loss,” says Rossell.

The solution? Upgrade the six-year-old WLAN to a pervasive, centrally-managed controller-based Wi-Fi network, one that could provide guest access and handle the user density and heavy bandwidth needs at the school. After holding a bake-off that included most of the major WLAN vendors, the Norwood School opted for an Aruba deployment.

“It’s a smaller deployment,” says Robert Fenstermacher, Head of Global Education Marketing for Aruba Networks. “Norwood is a good example of the kind of K-12 school that is setting the trend for 11n adopters. Some of our prestigious customers, like Cornell and Yale, have adopted this solution. Now, we’re seeing the K-12 adopters, the technically astute schools, moving toward 11n to support these more challenging applications. Norwood has a lot of unique applications, so they are using 30 APs with our 3400 controller and AirWave management.”

Those unique applications focus primarily around the networked projectors and pervasive use of tablet PCs.

“We’ve been doing laptops for a long time,” says Rossell. “But in the last four years, projectors have come of age, especially networked projectors, and that’s when tablets started to come online, as well. With the tablets all of a sudden being able to connect to a networked projector, you could get away from the model that’s hundreds of years old, with the teacher as the font of knowledge at the front of the classroom. Now the teacher can sit down with the kids in different settings and pass control over what’s on the screen to the kids. It’s different than a chalkboard or whiteboard. If you want a kid to show their work [in the old model], there’s the social thing of having to walk to the front and write on the board or whatever. [Allowing kids to stay where they are and still share, interact, collaborate, and show their work] makes a huge difference for us.”

The school’s IT department consists of Rossell, who manages the network, the servers, and major projects—“I try to keep an eye on the whole forest and where we’re going,” he says—a director of technology, one help desk person, one A/V specialist who also does roving tech support, a database administrator, and an administrative support specialist.

“It really sounds like a lot of bodies,” admits Rossell, “but we have 550 computers on campus. It’s not a lot of people given our service load, especially when you think that several hundred of those computers are in the hands of children.”

For the teachers, Rossell says the network is a godsend. “We have teachers who aren’t techies at all, and they are just taking to the new technology like fish to water. One of them just says, ‘I can’t imagine teaching without it anymore.’ She’s sitting down with kids working in pods or clusters.”

The new Aruba network, which came out of the testing phase and went live several months ago, seems to be meeting the high demand of its users and high expectations of its managers.

“We’re thrilled with it,” says Rossell. “We’re starting to work on implementing a captive portal thing now, so that, essentially, if a user has a Norwood user account where they have silently authenticated onto the controller, they’re logged onto a secure network. If you don’t have user name and password, the controller refuses to let you on the internal network, so your only choice is to connect with the guest network, which only connects to the outside world. You sign an agreement and you can check e-mail and that’s about it.”

Currently, Norwood has no plans to use the network for voice. “We do have an IP-based Avaya IP 500. Theoretically, we could buy IP wireless phones for it, but for now it’s just an additional complication--and they’re pretty expensive,” says Rossell.

Being a private school, expense, in general, is not the critical issue that it is for most public schools.

“We’re funded mostly by tuition, so we’re free to assemble our own budget and we’re not worrying about state mandates, which is helpful,” says Rossell. “We knew we needed to do something, as the projectors and the tablets were becoming more part of the curriculum; we knew we needed a wireless solution we could keep for five years, so we knew we needed 802.11n. There weren’t a lot of managed choices out there that do 802.11n.”

At the heart of it all, are the students, says Rossell.

“Really, it’s the curriculum that’s driving the technology here,” says Rossell. “We’re looking at what’s best for the kids educationally. I can’t overemphasize how important I think this cluster of technologies is for education moving forward. As tablet PCs get less and less expensive—we’re already seeing these netbooks come out for a few hundred dollars. Looking at Vista being able to handle sending video natively to projectors, and once you start thinking about that, and projectors continuing to drop in price, it’s a pretty amazing thing that I think we’re gonna be seeing. It’s gonna do some great things for education. Looking at these parts of one technological unit—tablet, projector, and the wireless unit that they are connecting to—we’re gonna be able to do some pretty cool stuff.”

Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-Fi Planet. Follow her on Twitter. Join Wi-Fi Planet on Facebook.

Originally published on .

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