Education, Unplugged: Schools Make Cable-Free Connections

With wireless portable devices, students now can take the classroom home.

With wireless portable devices, students now can take the classroom home.

Few observers doubted that the wireless-technology revolution would have an impact on K-12 education, but when third graders start turning in homework using personal digital assistants, we know we've made a significant leap from the era of chalk and blackboard.

The days are long gone when computers were rare objects in schools, rolled around on carts from classroom to classroom. Now, the most wired schools hand out laptops or PDAs to students, assign homework online, and facilitate classroom presentations using PowerPoint. Ironically, the freedom offered by the move of instruction into wireless cyberspace doesn't solve the sometimes daunting problems of real space -- upgrading the design of network-ready classrooms, installing communications closets for servers, and, even in the burgeoning wireless age, creating the pathways needed for cabling systems.

Robert Bogan, a consultant with Technology Plus, in Aurora, Colorado, considers finding those pathways the most difficult aspect of retrofitting older schools with new cables and network systems. In many schools, concrete-block walls pose particular difficulties, because architects typically dislike surface-mounted conduit and block walls can't be opened like wall board can. That obstacle can be remediated to some degree-or at least minimized-by routing computer networks and cable-television, security, voice, and audiovisual systems on a single category-six (CAT 6) cable, because each system's unit acts as its own Internet address. (CAT 6 cable, an industry standard, is the typical cabling for network connections for computers and servers.)

Bogan says, however, that full integration can be a tough sell with school districts accustomed to keeping systems separate. And wireless technology, though it gives students and teachers vastly increased flexibility, isn't a cure-all for interior upgrades in buildings with block walls, Bogan points out. "Even with a wireless data system," he says, "you still need a cable for all those other systems."

Taking Stock of the New

Bogan installed both wireless and hard-wired systems at the Denver School of Science and Technology, where technology is showcased rather than hidden, with exposed cable trays in the open ceilings and a glass-enclosed server room. "Having both systems is more expensive," he says, "but you have to provide wireless, because everyone uses it." In addition, for high schools offering courses that depend on bandwidth-hogging software, such as AutoDesk's AutoCAD, hard-wired networks are mandatory. More common in schools are classrooms where computers are used mainly for accessing the Internet, which is easily accommodated on a wireless network.

In new school construction, it's easier to accommodate leading-edge technology, as was the case in Denver. But often, consultants such as Bogan find themselves cramming server racks into unused custodial closets or carving out extra space in administrative offices.

Reusing existing cable is rarely an option, according to Bogan, because gauging length, quality, and condition is more time consuming (and more expensive) than pulling new wire. New closets need additional cooling to handle electronics-generated heat loads, as well as electrical receptacles. Upgrading a school's electrical power system to meet the needs of the computer age can present space issues, as well as high costs for service size increases, transformers, and panel boards.

Giving a laptop to each student is easier than ensuring each classroom has the electrical capacity to power them; one advantage of issuing PDAs is that multiple units can be recharged at one receptacle plug. Some schools have even provided dedicated closets intended just for recharging laptops.

The Firewall Factor

Portable technology, however, brings its own security problems. Mario Sanchez, a technology consultant with Los Angeles-based EQ International (part of RTKL Architects), says that as schools establish virtual private networks (VPNs) to allow students' laptops to access school networks from home, care should be given to implement appropriate security measures through smart cards or thumbprint identification to ensure that only students use the computers.

"You can install software to automatically lock down a laptop if a student stops attending school," Sanchez adds. In the case of encryption software, automatically updated Internet filtering, and stronger firewalls, he says, the concerns that outsiders might access wireless networks or students could download inappropriate material are considerably diminished.

Security concerns about power outages and emergencies also exist. Sanchez says rack-mounted, uninterruptible power sources are commonly sufficient to allow only for server shutdown, not for continuous network use. Schools typically provide power backup exclusively for telecommunications systems.

Server backup, however, is less of a problem. The drop in digital storage costs has made the idea of backing up a student's entire academic career less far-fetched than it once would have been. And Sanchez wonders why anyone would bother with a CD-ROM anymore, when server-based storage provides security and continuity between grades. "Managing, searching, and distributing it is the hard part," he says.

Small Devices in the Big Picture

School-technology administrators say infrastructure upgrades, though necessary for aging buildings, are useless without a comprehensive e-learning plan. That approach can mean anything from curricular changes in specific subjects to offering a high school diploma program solely via Web site. For example, introducing PDAs into a science lab means students can connect them to probes for testing phenomena such as a river's pH level.

The Littleton Public Schools, in Littleton, Colorado, implemented a Web-based learning program to help students with special circumstances complete their high school coursework. Using the Blackboard K-12 Starter Edition, well-known platform software from a company called Blackboard, the Littleton school district offers a wide selection of classes students access online or at a computer lab set up at the city's Arapahoe Community College. Course content is provided by Class.com, but the district could eventually use its own class materials.

The program is tailored to help students transition either directly to jobs or to classes at Arapahoe. David Yaskin, a vice president at Blackboard, in Washington, DC, says the program's ability to expand instruction -- using discussion forums, parental involvement, and additional resources -- has been a boon to high schools.

Melinda Ness, the district's coordinator for gifted and talented students, says district administrators hope Blackboard's pilot program can be expanded to offer professional-development courses for teachers, a common feature for other districts. Blackboard has been implemented in nearly 1,200 K-12 schools, many of which rely on the Internet for offering specialized classes for students in isolated locations.

Students in some Alaskan school districts, for example, can access Advanced Placement courses through Blackboard without resorting to the previous vogue in distance learning, which relied on expensive and complicated teleconferencing facilities and instructor availability. And, with Blackboard, like other Web-based programs, assessment is instant and can be shared with a wider community of teachers, parents, administrators, and fellow students.

"With Blackboard, we can track what students are doing and what assignments they are missing, and keep our finger on the pulse of where they are in the course," Ness says. Parents haven't yet been given access to the Web site, but the Littleton district's own site allows them to see their children's grades.

Although the district helped pay for its program by partnering with the local community college, schools can apply for a grant for such initiatives through the U.S. Department of Education's Star Schools program, begun in 2000. The program, which requires a matching-funds commitment from schools, encourages them to develop distance-learning programs and offers funding for equipment, facilities, coursework, and support staff.

Smart Phones, Smart Kids

Technology consultants and administrators almost uniformly point to so-called smart phones as the next wave in education. Like Palm's Treo and other such devices, these phones would allow students total connectivity while combining nearly every function they might normally use: phone service, email, and the Internet.

Some school administrators already rely on smart phones to augment their work: If a principal catches a student wandering the halls during class, a quick name check on a smart phone -- one Internet enabled and connected to the school's student database -- could pull up the student's photograph, class schedule, and tardiness record and a parent's email address; cutting class now has its digital risks.

These phones can be a boon to teachers and parents as well -- assignments can be assessed on Palms instantaneously, and results can be emailed or provided on demand in a Web portal to parents -- not to mention the kids themselves. "A Palm gives students the ability to access learning technology at times and in places unavailable before," says Eric Johnson, a director at Palm, in Sunnyvale, California. "And handhelds mean all students can have access to the same kind of tool."

Russell Fortmeyer is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record magazine.

This article originally published on 2/2/2007

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