Classroom Collaborators: Wireless Connectivity Is Providing a Level of Flexibility for Students and Teachers, Changing the Learning Environment in Ways That in Some Cases Has to Be Seen to Be Believed

Article excerpt

JOHN CHAMBERS, CEO of San Jose, CA-based computer networking giant Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com), paced the main stage in San Francisco's Moscone Conference Center, admonishing the members of his audience like a Southern preacher, warning them to prepare themselves for a revolution.

"Do you ever watch your children doing their homework?" he asked. "They're listening to music, instant messaging, and chatting on the phone at the same time. These aren't distractions you're seeing, but new forms of collaboration. You may not like it. You may say, 'That's not for me.' But believe me, that'll be you in five years. You will change your form of collaboration, in your business and in your personal interactions.... Collaboration is the next frontier. It will be enabled by different concepts and different devices, but it will be about the power of the human network in ways we are just beginning to understand."

Chambers was speaking to an audience of businesspeople and technologists at a conference last fall, but according to Ben Gibson, director of marketing for Cisco's wireless and mobility solutions group, the future he described will be enabled in no small part by wireless connectivity technologies that are being pioneered today in K-12 school districts around the country.

"Schools are a natural environment for wireless," Gibson says. "Wherever you're looking to promote collaboration and more easily accessible information, wireless is a natural fit."

Easy access to information and more flexible forms of collaboration were at the top of the wishlist at Kent School District, outside Seattle, when it first began pursuing a wireless strategy back in 1999. That was the year Apple Computer (www.apple.com) offered its first AirPort wireless local area network (WLAN) system. By 2001, Kent had provided one AirPort-based wireless laptop cart for each of its schools, and it has been expanding its wireless capabilities ever since. Last year the district launched a pilot program that equipped Mill Creek Middle School with complete wireless capabilities. The pilot is now a full-fledged program, and the district is planning to wirelessly enable all of its 40 schools while providing each student with a laptop.

Kent's wireless strategy, though closely linked to the 1-to-1 computing initiative, isn't about providing additional network capacity, or even cutting costs. A few years ago, the district completed a major building infrastructure upgrade, wiring each of its schools to the latest standards, with 10 network drops in each classroom. What wireless adds to the district's already advanced network, explains Thuan Nguyen, Kent's director of operations and technical services, is a level of flexibility in the instructional process, and support for the same kind of collaboration John Chambers was evangelizing.

"You almost have to come to one of these classrooms and see how the students are using the technology to really understand its impact," Nguyen says. "You won't see all the kids sitting in rows, facing the front of the room, listening to the teachers. They spend most of the day in small groups scattered around the classroom and out in the hallway. Wireless is a tool that gives them the flexibility to learn their way, and it's quickly becoming a necessity in the schools."

Kent has standardized its wireless network on Cisco's Unified Wireless Architecture service, Nguyen says. The system is running Cisco 6500s--powerful switches to control network access--with 10-gigabit backbones connecting some of the schools. …