In cramped San Jose classrooms, wireless technology gives students computer access

In cramped San Jose classrooms, wireless technology gives students computer access

High schools roll out carts carrying laptops, LAN links and printers

By Ron Levine

Special to GCN

High schools are looking for ways to integrate computer savvy into their curriculums. But it isn't always the cost, the time or the added courses that pose the biggest challenge for school districts'sometimes it's the lack of space.

Most high school classrooms are designed for lectures, with a chair-and-desk combination per student and a teacher's desk in front or at the side. There is no space to accommodate computer equipment for 25 to 35 students.

Aide Gay Hinkle, left, helps students Brian Yanaga and Jessica Mahani work on a group research project to create a Civil War newspaper.

But the Campbell Union High School District in San Jose, Calif., is working around this dilemma. Five of the district's six high schools were built between 1950 and 1980, when computers smaller than room-size mainframes existed only in imagination. The lack of space prevents the schools from having desktop PCs for each student.

The solution is wireless technology.

The school district is augmenting its limited number of desktop computers with notebook PCs connected to a wireless LAN system from Proxim Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., said Jess Stephens, director of information and technology services for the schools.

The district has outfitted five rolling carts that can be checked out by teachers and transported from classroom to classroom.

Each cart holds six notebooks'each containing an internal wireless PC card'a network printer, extra batteries, a rapid battery charger and a Proxim RangeLAN2 Access Point, which enables the wireless connection.

Del Mar High School, with about 1,400 students, recently implemented the cart program in its curriculum.

Del Mar was selected as one of the first participants in the state Education Department's Digital High School program, which provides matching funds to help schools use technology for instruction.

The program challenges educators, students and the community to focus on current and future uses of technology in learning.

By installation day, Del Mar teachers, eager to get their students online, had reserved the carts. Students also welcomed the shared-notebook concept.

One science teacher had seven desktop PCs in his classroom of 25 students. He checked out two carts and distributed the 12 notebooks throughout the classroom, which has long rows of tables instead of desks.

When Stephens stopped in to see how the system was working, he found no more than two students per computer, all doing Internet research for their science projects and printing out their findings on the carts' laser printers.

Learning Link

Life science students communicate with rainforest researchers in South America via the Internet while watching a satellite broadcast of the researchers on a TV monitor.

To make the school computer-friendly, each classroom was hard-wired with a LAN jack similar to a telephone jack. That wiring connects to a server on the school site, running the student information system on a Novell NetWare 4.11 LAN.

The school site has a local Web server connected to the campus LAN, which connects to more than 300 nodes on the campus and to NetWare, Unix and Microsoft Windows NT servers at the district office.

The 133-MHz Pentium notebooks from Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. have 32M of RAM, hard disk capacity of 2G to 4G and a full complement of software'Windows 95 with Microsoft Office, Netscape Communicator and Internet capability. Some carts have been loaded with specific classroom software such as advanced math programs or typing tutors. The printers are either Hewlett-Packard DeskJets or HP LaserJet 1100s.

Each notebook has been fitted with an internal wireless Proxim RangeLAN2 PC Card that communicates via radio waves to a transmitter/receiver RangeLAN2 Access Point.

Each cart holds 5 to 10 feet of Category 5 cabling for plugging into the network jack. The other end of the cabling is connected to the RangeLAN2 Access Point in the cart. The access point transmits and receives radio waves to and from the notebooks' PC Cards, sending and receiving data in much the same way that a radio receives music.

'Because of space constraints, we knew quickly that shared laptops would be best for us,' Stephens said. 'However, we spent the most time on the question of how to best configure the computers, because we didn't want to have to run in and out with a hub and lots of wire to connect all of the computers.'

The district decided to use radio frequency technology for its wireless system, because infrared technology depends on constant line of sight, he said.

'We chose to go with Proxim equipment because Proxim uses 15 different channels, and we could assign each of our portable carts to a set channel domain for increased bandwidth,' Stephens said.

Students keep the computers in good condition.

When the carts are returned to the campus library and media center, a group of students inspects the equipment to make sure everything is working. The student support group also makes sure all notebooks are fully charged and ready to go.

Every high school classroom in the district is equipped with wall jacks for Internet and network access.

Over the next 18 months, each school will obtain the carts, notebooks and the wireless system. That will put computers into the hands of the entire district's 8,000 high schoolers.

A new high school, which opened in September, is scheduled for wireless LAN implementation this summer.

'The [school district] recently passed a bond issue with portions of the money to be used to upgrade library facilities and build new science wings at several of our campuses,' Stephens said.

Technology Services has 'recommended that a minimal amount of Ethernet wiring be installed in each of these locations,' he said. 'We believe that wireless Ethernet will provide a greater degree of flexibility in the configuration and use of these rooms for portable, as well as desktop, computers.'

Two paths

In its effort to modernize, the district is embarking on dual paths: It is upgrading all the older equipment to machines with Pentium chips and aiming to provide wireless technology in each high school.

'In the past, the classroom computers were whatever was available, whatever was cheapest and whatever was donated,' Stephens said.

The RangeLAN2 Access Points and the associated internal adapter PC cards operate in the 2.4-GHz frequency band and use frequency-hopping spread spectrum radio frequency technology.

RangeLAN2 products operate at a data rate of 1.6 Mbps per channel with 15 independent channels available. That lets users implement up to 15 separate networks in the same physical space. The RangeLAN2 technology includes seamless roaming, power management, advanced security and site survey diagnostics.

Ron Levine is a technology writer with Coast Writing of Carpinteria, Calif. He can be reached at [email protected].


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