George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

Tech Teacher: Wireless to the Rescue

Setting up a wireless network at your school is a lot easier than you think.
January 24, 2007

The Internet is an astonishing source of educational resources: Lesson plans, classroom-product reviews, and even psychological support for those dark days when your students (or your coworkers) are straining your mental balance are only a Google search away. The trick, however, is getting that pipeline of online information flowing throughout your school, including directly into classroom PCs. Computers are often centralized in a media center, building codes can be prohibitive for setting up a broadband feed, and most schools are short-changed when it comes necessary tech support.

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G Whiz

Setting up a wireless access point (WAP) is simple if you already have an Internet connection. You'll need two things: a wireless router (hardware that converts your Internet connection into a wireless signal), and a PC equipped with a wireless card to receive the signal.

Before you buy any new wireless hardware, however, understand that all components must be compatible. Most current products support a data-transmission standard known as 802.11g and are usually backward compatible with an older standard called 802.11b. There's an even older standard, 802.11a, that may not be supported, so check older hardware before you go shopping. If you're buying all-new gear, go for 802.11g, as it's faster than its predecessors. If your computer needs a wireless card, check with the computer's manufacturer for recommendations for your specific model.

Location, Location, Location

The next step is to decide where to set up the wireless network. Although wireless signals can pass through walls, a variety of environmental factors can affect signal strength. Walls covered with metal or that contain electrical conduit, household devices such as microwaves, or Bluetooth-enabled cell phones can cause interference.

Credit: Cal Joy

Different wireless routers also have varying signal ranges, so if you're experiencing poor performance, move the router. If you can't do that, put the client computer on a cart and move it around the room to see whether the signal reception improves. If you have more than ten or twelve computers on a single wireless connection, consider adding a router to share the load.

A few steps remain, but most routers come equipped with straightforward instructions for configuration and connecting from your computer. If this procedure sounds scary, don't be put off: Wireless manufacturers understand that home users are not always tech pros, and they have worked hard to make the setup experience as simple as possible, especially if you buy hardware labeled as compatible with your Mac or PC. Once you get your system up and running, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.

Tech Resource Card

  • Wireless router: $35-$150
  • Wireless card: $25-$100
Time to set up

1-2 hours

What to Ask

Here are some details to find out before you start:

  • If I have existing Internet data-transmission equipment, is it 802.11g, 802.11b, or 802.11a? If I'm buying new equipment, does it support 802.11g?
  • Does the wireless router offer security functions such as password protection?
  • What's the store's return policy if the item is broken or incompatible?
Geoff Butterfield is Edutopia's former senior technical Web producer.

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