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Elementary schools, the next wireless realm

Elementary schools across the U.S. are now investing in laptops with wireless Internet connections for their students, and they may soon become as common as pencils and erasers.

Don't be surprised if your little son or daughter comes home from school one day and offers advice on your wireless network implementation. Well, maybe not, but he or she may ask you why your computer has so many cords attached to it.

Elementary schools across the U.S. are starting to invest in laptops featuring wireless Internet connections for their students, and they may soon become as common as pencils and erasers.

"I think that they are going to become more and more popular," said Bob Tincher, district technology coordinator for the Independence School District in Independence, Kan.

Tincher's school district of 2,100 students has implemented 60 wireless-enabled Dell notebook computers and four secure, mobile carts where the computers are stored and charged.

The carts, with 15 computers each, are reserved in advance by teachers and wheeled from classroom to classroom throughout the school day. The computers' wireless PC cards transmit data to a hub on each of the carts, which is plugged into a LAN via a classroom's pre-existing network jack.

Students can move around the room with computers in hand without losing the ability to surf the Web or send e-mail around the world. In fact, if all kids adapt to the technology has quickly as Tincher's and other have, teachers and parents may end up asking them for a lesson or two.

According to Jim Sour, general manager of Dell Computer Corp's K-12 Business Unit, the number of wireless implementations in academia is only increasing, so parents better get used to experiencing network envy.

"We have seen a large growth over the last nine months, and even a larger growth over the past three or four months," said Sour, who declined to offer specific growth figures.

Sour did attribute much of the growing popularity to both Dell's advertising campaign, highlighted by a TV commercial featuring its Notebook Security Cart and Latitude and Inspiron notebooks. He also said word-of-mouth advertising within the education community has been just as important.

"The K-12 community is a pretty tightly-knit community, and tech directors and CIOs are very interested in learning from their peers," he said.

"I think that wireless LAN, as a whole, really lends itself to that type of application," said Kelly Quinn, senior research analyst for wireless technologies with the Aberdeen Group in Boston, Mass. "It's a campus based application. It is something that can be used for several buildings on one site and still connect people seamlessly."

Apple has also produced a wireless networking solution that is gaining popularity in school systems. Its AirPort Card, when installed in nearly any of Apple's personal computers, and AirPort Base Station provide wireless Internet and network connectivity up to 150 feet away from the base.

Gary Murphy, director of information and technology services for Colorado's Douglas County School District, wanted to avoid hard wiring entire schools, many being decades old.

"Even when we put single [network access] drops in classrooms, it doesn't matter how much we plan, they're always in the wrong place, and teachers have to run cords all over the room," Murphy said.

Instead, his district's Saddle Ranch School installed four of WavePOINT-II access points from Avaya Communications, formerly Lucent Technologies' networking group.

Dispersed around the school, the 1,300 foot range of each unit gives students the ability to travel all over the building, or even outside, without ever parting from the information superhighway.

"We use a lot of mobile classrooms," said Murphy, citing his 35,000-student district's status as the second fastest growing school system in the U.S. "So rather than run wire outside, we just put a wireless signal up in the main building and it gives them the coverage that they need."

Making the Apple hardware more attractive may be its interoperability. Much of the AirPort technology is borrowed from Avaya's OriNOCO product line. Thanks in part to its built-in compliance with new 802.11 wireless networking standards, AirPort Base Stations are compatible with many of Dell's wireless products.

Dave Person, technology coordinator for School Administrative District 54 in Norridgewock, Maine, recently implemented an AirPort wireless network with about 18 iBooks in one of his schools. He said the interoperability helped convince him of the technology's potential.

"Kids just absolutely love it. It's just the most popular thing. They rush to get them because they're not connected to anything. They're free to sit in a soft chair and go where they want to do what then need to do," Person said.

One potential risk with wireless technology may be the unknown health risks associated with wireless devices. Person said health concerns are prevalent in his community.

"In our new middle school we're putting wireless devices everywhere in the building, but we're not sure they'll let us connect them," Person said. "I've had concerns from parents, my superintendent, and the school board. It's such a gray area."

The price tag for a wireless network is also a concern that, according to analyst Quinn, may widen the educational gap between rich and poor communities.

"A lot of schools can't afford paper and pens, never mind wireless devices," said Quinn, adding that more affluent areas may soon have a great advantage unless the vendors themselves offer assistance to the disadvantaged.

"Arguably that cost would be offset as you add more computers," said Murphy. "The cost of a wireless elementary school is roughly $5,000, but as a result we saved 60 hardwire drops that would have been put in, and they run up to $125 a piece."

Government programs, like state initiatives and the federal government's Universal Service Fund (E-Rate), are helping to make the often-pricey wireless technology widely available to all students as well.

The end result may be a generation of kids who are so well acquainted with wireless computers that they can hardly image life in the classroom without that technology.

Murphy said he recently spent time watching a kindergartener create a multimedia presentation with information he had gathered from the Internet. "This was five-year-old boy that made a project with audio and pictures and drawings, all integrated into a single project that would have shocked anyone," he said.

"They're more tech-savvy than we are already. Think about what this generation has been exposed to," Murphy added. "This is the way they've always done it. To say to a kid, 'compare this to how you used to do it,' they don't know what you're talking about."

According to Dell, pricing varies based on configurations, but the cost of a wireless lab with a cart, 16 notebook computers, PC cards, one access point, and a printer is about $40,000.

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