Is Wireless Worth It? We Report on One District's Pilot Face-Off of Wireless Laptops on Carts versus the Traditional Plugged-In Computer Lab-With Some Surprising Findings. (Wired vs. Wireless)

Article excerpt

We've all read the articles on wireless computing, and many of us have taken initial steps at implementing this "break the mold" technology with the potential to reshape the education experience. Something as simple as eliminating the wires that bind students' information access to the labs and libraries that house computers gives a whole new meaning to technology integration.

A tantalizing promise? Absolutely. But not so fast. To consider are the real-world problems encountered in a school environment. What are the essential conditions for an effective wireless implementation? What are the potential pitfalls in terms of infrastructure, training, and curriculum integration? Most importantly, how can a district ensure that its wireless investment will be used to create the greatest positive impact on student learning?

These are the questions our education research firm set out to help the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District answer as they contemplated investing in a wireless solution.

A Culture of Informed Decision Making

Katonah-Lewisboro has developed and supported a culture where data-informed decision making and community/stakeholder reflection are mandatory. While this can be expensive in terms of time and resources, the district has concluded that investments in evaluation are smarter than the alternative of pursuing ill-founded decisions and dead-end programs.

Though certainly not restricted to technology decision making, this culture has dictated an approach to technology planning that calls for pilot programs and independent evaluation in advance of full-district implementation. As a specialist in external evaluation of technology programs, Sun Associates has worked with Katonah-Lewisboro on multiple projects, including several full-district evaluations of the overall impact of instructional technology on student learning and teacher practice.

The Problems

Katonah-Lewisboro's investigation of wireless started with a basic interest in emerging technologies as well as a need to find additional classroom space in its buildings. The district's computer labs, which are traditionally the size of two standard classroom units, were occupying valuable space that could be returned to traditional classrooms. Faced with growing enrollments and the expensive and time-consuming process of school construction, the district asked Sun Associates to help determine if it made sense to eliminate the static computer labs and make the labs mobile. Most importantly, the district wanted to root its decision in a thorough examination of wireless technology's impacts on teaching and learning.

The Research Strategy

The study would involve a cohort of sixth and seventh grade math and science teachers at John Jay Middle School. The group developed several technology-infused curriculum units (see "The Teacher Projects") in the early fall, with the plan for half of them to teach these units using the school's wireless laptop lab and the other half using the existing wired computer lab. Each teacher would be observed by Sun Associates' researchers during mid-to-late fall, and their classes' work would be analyzed and compared.

The Technology

Within the context of this study, "wireless technology" means rolling carts of 16 wirelessly networked laptop computers. Katonah-Lewisboro used Wintel machines communicating via the 802.1 lb wireless Ethernet standard. Wireless base stations were distributed throughout the school's main classroom wing and tied into its existing 100-Mbps Ethernet. In this network, applications are served off the school's main server, and student and teacher data is also stored there in private and class folders.

Katonah-Lewisboro teachers have a variety of other mobile devices available (e.g., PDAs and AlphaSmarts), but none are currently integrated into the school or district network.

The Environment

John Jay is a traditionally structured grade 6-8 middle school of approximately 1,000 students. …