A Wireless World(2)

from Technology & Learning

Charles County Public Schools makes wireless universal.

Wireless connectivity in schools is all the rage, and many school systems have at least gotten their feet wet with a wireless lab or a few portable laptop carts. But Bijaya Devkota, the chief information officer of Charles County Public Schools, has done what many school systems only dream of—implemented universal wireless access throughout his district, including data and voice services. Devkota shared some of his district's experiences in rolling out universal wireless, and the lessons and best practices learned throughout the process, as well as thoughts on the benefits of implementing wireless capability.

Devkota is clear about the intent of Charles County Public Schools to pursue a wireless initiative. "We had a vision for years to get a wireless network in place, and we're now the first school system in the United States to have wireless end-to-end," he says.

Devkota says the first crucial step in any large project is getting clear and unequivocal buy-in from senior management. "In deploying any comprehensive, multi-year project of this type, you have to sell the superintendent or CEO—the leader of the organization has to buy into the idea. At Charles County Public Schools, we had our superintendent's support from day one and every step of the way."

Building a Network Infrastructure

The vision of the system, however, must be about more than the technology. "This is not just a technical issue—technical issues can be solved. A lot of people see technology as a 'Field of Dreams,' build it and they will come, but you must have the end result in place before you build it," he says.

And you have to start from the ground up, building a strong technology foundation, where each piece adds to the value of the whole picture. Having enough bandwidth on the back end was essential to push voice, data, and video through a wireless system without service outages or slow performance. Devkota notes that previous projects to build up the district's network infrastructure not only enabled connectivity between schools and made the wireless initiative possible, it also bore fruit in many other directions. "All of a sudden we can digitize most of the textbooks for our core curriculum, and the teachers can access that information from anywhere with their wireless laptops," he says. "Where before the time to put together a lesson plan was measured in days, now in many cases it's hours or minutes, because the teachers can do it anywhere, anytime."

And rolling out a capable infrastructure has allowed Charles County Public Schools to make use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) capabilities, since the network was designed to carry voice traffic as well as data. "We now have 4,000 VoIP desk phones, and 600 to 700 wireless phones," Devkota says. "All of a sudden we could get rid of walkie-talkies. All of our administrators carry Cisco wireless phones with them and can be reached anytime, wherever they are, over our own network. Nurses, guidance counselors, assistant principals, all can make use of the VoIP phones anywhere."

The Portable Classroom

Universal wireless access can be transformative for the entire academic experience, and makes effective use of resources of space and time as well. "We devised on-demand, any time, anywhere instruction," says Devkota. "Now we are not restricted to classrooms and labs. The cafeteria, really any corner of any school building, is a space we could use for instruction."

Devkota sees that kind of flexibility as a long-term benefit, but not one which was necessarily anticipated in advance. "When we started out, we didn't at that time know that we could create an on-demand instructional program," he says. "But we knew that for the entire wireless project, if we could take one piece at a time, we'd be successful."

Mobile video streaming is another key feature built in to the Charles County Public Schools wireless system, and, in fact, the video goes in two directions. CCPS can stream video to mobile wireless devices, but in addition, principals, vice-principals, and other key administrative staff have access to all of the district's onsite video cameras from their wireless devices.

One key factor for success in the district's wireless deployment was a thorough architectural analysis, including wireless site surveys to determine the necessary number and placement of wireless access points, as well as potential problem areas. Before starting the project, CCPS sent its own team to walk and test every potential site. This exhaustive approach generated invaluable information. "From our surveys," Devkota says, "it became apparent that we needed an access point in every classroom where walls were cinder block construction. Other types of classrooms could have one access point every four to five rooms." After the wireless deployment, CCPS again sent teams to resurvey and identify any areas where additional access points were needed. Also, some high-traffic areas needed multiple access points to provide adequate bandwidth during times of peak use.

Protecting your Network

Devkota said that changing technology can mean chasing a moving target, but in the case of wireless networks, backward compatibility has made that somewhat less of an issue. CCPS started out deploying devices using the original wireless standard, 802.11b, but when 802.11g came out, it switched to the newer standard, in part because it is backward-compatible with the 802.11b devices already installed.

Paying close attention to security issues has also been a must. "Previously, someone typically had to physically enter your premises to hack in to your network," Devkota says. "Now, with wireless access, someone could access your school's network from a car sitting outside in the parking lot." In the case of Charles County Public Schools, the attention to security necessitated some additional purchases. The IBM laptops CCPS purchases come with IBM's own software pre-installed, but to fully secure the network using CCPS's Cisco infrastructure an additional Cisco client had to be installed and configured on each laptop. "Three years back we didn't know we'd need an additional product to secure our network," he says. "There was an additional cost, but we were willing to make the investment in security. We took it as a lesson learned—every day you learn something new."

Charting New Territory

CCPS has learned plenty over the several years the network and wireless implantation took. But every step has come on top of carefully planned previous steps. According to Devkota, "First we got stakeholder buy-in, then sat down with Cisco and started creating our blueprint. The first step was the wide-area network, creating 2 GB fiber links between our facilities. That enabled all the further steps." Other pieces of the puzzle include network management, security, videoconferencing, distance learning/e-learning, data warehousing, and the VoIP capabilities.

"It's a total end-to-end solution, and we're at the tail end of it now," he says. "We have some applications planned and in place, but we're looking for more applications to run on the systems. It's all so much easier with a good infrastructure."

CCPS took out a loan of $6 million to fund the entire project. Wireless capability was the last section; the entire system for 27,000 students, including network switches and VoIP phones, cost about $1 million. Thoughout the build-out, doing as much as possible in-house and developing a strong in-house technical team was critical. "We did much of the work in-house, and sent people to training," says Devkota.

"Cisco did about 10 percent of the work and trained our in-house staff to do the rest." CCPS also participates in the Cisco Academy program, and CCPS students involved in that program also helped in the design. To date, CCPS has hired two former students out of that group to work full time.

The Future of On-Campus Wireless

Devkota and CCPS are not merely resting on their laurels. "We're looking at wide-area wireless capability," he says. "The one shortcoming of VoIP and the kind of campus-area network we have is that 15-20 feet away from our sites, the wireless stops working, so between facilities we don't have coverage." To address this issue, particularly for administrators, CCPS is looking at multimode phones that can use CCPS's local wireless service whenever in range of the school's infrastructure but will switch to a cellular carrier for backup when off site. "Two years from now I can see looking at multimode, but it's not mature yet," Devkota says. With a firm footing in the present and one eye on the future, Charles County Public Schools is well positioned to take advantage of all the benefits educational technology has to offer.

Richard Hoffman is a writer, analyst, and technology consultant in New Hampshire. He is the former head of the Web Technology Group at Fairfax County Public Schools.

6 Tips

Launching a Wireless Laptop Program
By Domenic Grignano

The technology director for East Rock Magnet School in New Haven, Conn., a federal government test site for laptop learning, shares his secrets to a successful implementation.

1. Build a Wireless Foundation
The first option for creating a wireless infrastructure is to mount access points on portable laptop carts. The second, and better, choice is to strategically place access points throughout the entire school building. In addition to making it possible for special education students who are routinely pulled out of their regular classrooms to use their computers, providing 100 percent wireless coverage also ensures maximum flexibility in emergency situations—when the heating goes down in a classroom, for instance, and kids have to relocate to the library or cafeteria.

2. Choosing a Laptop
Please do not choose the cheapest model out there because of budget constraints! This can backfire. The following are essential technical requirements: a brand-name computer with a 3-year warranty; 512MB; built-in wireless cards; durable construction (magnesium alloy case); long battery life; clear and visible screen from all angles; and lightweight for ease of use.

3. The Correct Cart
A sturdy and durable cart for housing your laptops is crucial. Another way to think about it: With laptops costing $1,100 to $2,000 each, one cart protects over $30,000 worth of school assets. With that in mind, the model you choose should offer secure construction with the strongest possible locks, built-in charging capabilities with surge suppressor, fully welded construction, long power cords, and reconfigurable module shelves.

4. Network Infrastructure
Your laptops will work at peak performance if these conditions are met: proper CAT 5 wiring; fiber-optic backbone; quality network switches and access points; high-speed broadband connection; and reliable and efficient servers.

5. Foolproof Configuration
Avoid configuration glitches: (1) before you give out any laptops decide on all the curriculum products and other software you'll be using during the year and make one perfect copy; (2) create a clone of this perfect image by copying to CDs for installation; (3) install the image to all other laptops for deployment or when a laptop fails; and (4) install desktop security software on all laptops to prevent hacking.

6. The Biggest Secret of All
The technology coordinator needs to model 21st century lessons to teachers and show them how to transform traditional teaching methods by substituting the use of laptop instruction—for example, integrating reading, writing, social studies, and technology literacy skills into one one-hour lesson. In short, don't make technology an add-on to teachers' already burdened load of instructional tasks! To see sample lessons, visit http://eastrock.org/units.htm.

Domenic A. Grignano is the technology facilitator and systems engineer at East Rock Magnet School in New Haven, Connecticut.

Preparing Teachers for One-to-One