Wildfires that raged in southern California in 2003 forced the Lemon Grove School District to shut down for a week. The poor air quality meant many students spent that time in their homes, trying to fill the hours with TV, video games and marathon phone calls. But nearly all of the members of Samantha Swann's sixth-grade science class had a better idea.
With Tablet PCs given to them by the school and a home wireless connection arranged through the district's cable company, the students spent the week creating Web sites about fire, ecology and water use. From her home, Swann guided discussions, supervised site development and suggested more topics relevant to their situation, all from her own wirelessly connected Tablet PC. "It was a blast," says Swann. "Because the kids had wireless, they could go anywhere in their house and work on the project. It felt like we were all in the classroom together."
There's little question that wireless is changing educational directions, both at Lemon Grove and in a growing number of districts across the country. According to education research firm Market Data Retrieval, 37 percent of K-12 public schools have wireless access, up from 27 percent in 2003 and 15 percent in 2002.
Although wireless initiatives require some budget outlay for access points, site surveys and software, often these programs are seen as money-saving tactics that will benefit a district far into the future. The benefits are numerous, including better Internet and network access for teachers and students, more flexibility and mobility for redefining classes' makeup on the fly, and no pesky wires or construction efforts needed whenever more rooms are connected.
The technology does have limitations as well, as some districts have found. Sometimes, schools are constructed in a way that means many more access points than normal are needed for full wireless implementation. Also, coming up with the funding for a full rollout can be tricky, especially if a school is already wired. Technology directors fret about issues like network security, and multiple layers of authentication to keep non-authorized individuals from jumping onto the network from the parking lot or down the block. In fact, one high tech district, Scarsdale (N.Y.) Public Schools, eschewed wireless during its recent high school renovation mostly due to security concerns.
Despite its challenges though, wireless technology looks to be the way of the near future, and the schools that already have it are exploring different ways to use it, from teacher development to student enrichment.
As wireless proliferates, several trends seem to be prevalent. These include the growing use of Tablet PCs and handheld devices, more home access, increased focus on centralized management, and full-scale implementations instead of using wireless laptop carts with access points on them.
For Swann, the Tablet PCs have been a boon. Unlike laptops, which force students to type, tablet-based computers can be made to recognize handwriting. This can be especially helpful for middle school and elementary school students who might struggle with the small keyboards on most laptops, as well as help them draw diagrams or navigate the Web using just a stylus.
At Lemon Grove, the Tablet PC initiative was rolled out in 2003 for sixth and seventh graders as a pilot project. Students applied to be in the program, and were given the computer and home wireless access after writing an essay about why they wanted to be part of the project. Swann says it was important for students to understand the Tablet PCs weren't just funky new technology, but that they constituted a new--and more intense--educational format. "We had to explain to kids that the program involved more work, and doing things differently, because they'd be using new applications," says Swann.
With that caveat in place, and students eager to start clicking wirelessly, the program has taken off. Swann, who teaches math as well as science, has found the wireless implementation has changed how she teaches. Instead of an entire class following along in a single textbook, students work at their own pace on their PC, including taking tests and doing homework. From her PC, Swann can track the achievement level of students and split them into small groups so they can work with others at their level. "It's allowed me to individualize math," she says. "I can do workshops and help students with certain skills, instead of teaching the whole class at the same time."
Although such an effort could be done with wired PCs, Swann credits wireless access with giving the students more flexibility in how they do their work. Often, the students send her e-mail from the cafeteria, the library or home. "They can ask me a question when they think of it, and move on with their work," she says.
Stock Trading on the Fly
Other schools are also discovering that going wireless doesn't mean being confined to standard laptops. Wireless-enabled devices like Palm handhelds, Sidekicks, cell phones, even portable GPS systems, can tap into a district's connection and provide educational opportunity.
At the Palisades School District in Kintersville, Penn., students in Rich Kiker's computer and multimedia class study wireless connections as a social phenomenon, and then get to play around with it themselves. An especially popular exercise is a stock market game done by 11th graders, using Palms and desktops in the room. Accessing MarketWatch, a financial and business Web site, students buy and sell stocks through their Palm handhelds. Although they have the ability to do stock trading from any computer, Kiker has noticed that they're particularly keen on using the devices rather than desktops.
"They love to be walking down the hallway, making stock trades," he says. "It makes them feel really connected, and brings the point home about how wireless is affecting our society."
Educators, too, have been part of the wireless wave, according to Tom Ohlsson, director of marketing at Roving Planet, a Westminster, Colo.-based provider of wireless security and management services for several school districts, including Eugene (Ore.) School District and California's East Side Union High School District.
"Thanks to wireless, we're seeing many schools more focused on teacher development efforts," says Ohlsson. "Teachers don't have to wait to go home and use their computer, or find a way to all huddle around a single machine to look at their own training materials." Wireless access is giving Roving Planet districts and other schools the ability to have teachers congregate in one room with their laptops, and discuss the material more efficiently.
Another shift is occurring around home access. Lemon Grove gave all the students in its pilot program wireless access at home so they wouldn't miss a beat away from school. But it isn't only students who are getting this perk--teachers at many schools are being set up with wireless, courtesy of the networking and cable companies that service the districts. In some districts, even the school board gets to cut the cord.
When the Norristown Area (Penn.) School District put wireless in its high school, three middle schools and one elementary school in 2003, it saw potential for the technology beyond giving students ubiquitous access, says Mark Long, IT director. This year, the district began running a program with its school board, aiming for a paperless board meeting. All school board members were given wireless laptops to use during the school term, and Long went to each member's house to set up wireless access.
The effect has been astounding, Long says. "In only a couple of months, we began to see an amazing difference in how the board operated." Instead of shuffling through papers during meetings, board members access agenda items on their laptops, and can search archived notes through the school's intranet system. Now getting minutes and other information is only a few clicks away, saving the district money and allowing the board to do more extensive work with better information.
"Kids see technology as a normal part of their life, it's second nature to them at this point," says Long. "But some groups, like teachers or school board members, sometimes take a bit more time to become comfortable with replacing old methods with technological ones. That is, until you implement something like this wireless initiative with the school board, where everyone sees the benefits right away and jumps in." One trend that might start to wane is the ubiquitous wireless cart. These carts are basically islands of wireless technology, with laptops stored on racks and a wireless access point built right into them. It's a boon for schools with limited funds, because it doesn't require a full-scale implementation across the district, and because it can be borrowed by the science department in the morning and the English department in the afternoon. Also, security is more easily managed, since the range of the access points is limited to just a few classrooms. In other words, there's no one in the parking lot at 8:00 p.m. trying to hop on the wireless network.
But as the uses of wireless become better known, and teachers and students find more creative ways to harness the technology, wireless carts could present a difficulty. Two or three carts in the same room, each with its own access point, create conflict in terms of operability, Long says. "It happens a lot that if you've got a couple of carts near each other, they'll try to tune to the same channel, basically, and cancel each other out," he notes. "Then you've got no wireless, and a bunch of kids waiting around for tech support."
As students grow fonder of wireless access, they're also starting to bristle at having access limited to a single classroom or the library. "They want to do their homework in the cafeteria, or the hallway," Long notes. "Since they've gotten used to Internet resources, not having those available will make them feel limited in their work."
Future Uses Will Multiply
As wireless becomes even more prevalent, it's likely that districts will find new uses for the technology. Like the methods seen at Lemon Grove and other districts, classrooms of students will be able to break into small groups and work on multiple projects rather than draw on the same textbook material and take the same tests. With this approach, education becomes more individualized, targeted at a student's skill level and development.
Most likely to boom in the near future is A/V applications, says Tom Racca, vice president of marketing at Chantry Networks, a Waltham, Mass.-based provider of mobile and wireless products that has worked with many school districts. (Siemens AG recently bought Chantry.) "The era of bringing all the students into a gym or an auditorium to see a speaker is coming to an end in some ways," he says. "Schools are much more eager to tap into wireless for audio visual applications, which means piping video to each classroom."
But it's not just students and teachers who could benefit from wireless in the future. Administrators will also find creative ways to do their tasks, says Racca. Chantry Networks has been working with the Adams 12 Five Star School District in Colorado to implement point-of-sale units in the cafeteria. The district will give each student a "debit card" that has information about them and is hooked up to an accounting system for billing to parents. Instead of fumbling for money or lunch tickets, students will be able to swipe the card through a handheld reader. The funds will either be deducted from an account that's been prepaid by parents, or a bill can be sent home periodically.
Adams' use of wireless for such a task will probably become commonplace before long, Racca says, because it makes sense both in terms of cost and management. "Kids are so used to this type of technology that it makes it easy to implement for them," he says. "They're used to using debit cards, and tapping into centralized information. So, in many ways, schools are just trying to tap into what kids already experience in other places."
With new schools being built that have wireless already part of the construction plan, and initiatives like the Education First Network (see related information), it seems the path toward being unplugged is growing more traveled every day. Schools are finding that the mobility, convergence of technology and applications, and access to resources provided by wireless are just too juicy to pass up. "I think as more schools understand the power of wireless, it'll become common to see all kinds of creative work being done," says Lemon Grove's Swann. "After all, it makes teaching and learning fun and exciting. And you can't beat that."
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in Saint Louis Park, Minn.