Reflections on Teaching in a Wireless Laptop Lab

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In recent years laptop computers have become increasingly popular in educational settings; wireless connectivity is a more recent development which is only now being fully explored, and which has led to the creation of the "wireless laptop lab". When we use the term "wireless laptop lab", we are referring to an arrangement in which a number of laptop computers equipped for wireless network access are grouped together and used as a "class set", often with the capability of being moved as a set to different locations. The absence of wires and cables and the resulting portability open a whole range of possibilities not available with traditional desktop computers. The implications for learning and instruction are considerable as traditional technology-based activities are enhanced by this new-found flexibility.

A number of different authors recently have described the use of wireless technologies in instructional settings. Futhey (2000) has detailed Carnegie Mellon's Wireless Andrew project; Gay and others (2001) have discussed wireless collaborative learning activities at Cornell University. Tolson (2001) has addressed the community college setting, and Olsen (2000) has provided a lengthy list of colleges and universities making instructional use of wireless net works. Both Weathers (2001) and Dugan (2001) have written of the wireless network in the context of libraries, and Tomei, Huth, and Ravenstahl (2001) have reported on wireless networks within K-12 schools. Bowers (2001) articulated eight tips on planning for wireless technology implementation. These studies and many others like them describe the infrastructure and demonstrate the potential of wireless technology for teaching and learning but do not detail specific teaching experiences in a wireless laptop lab.

One year ago, our institution began to implement wireless connectivity in the central part of the campus as Phase I of a two-phase project. Phase II should be completed approximately four months from the time of this writing, so the entire campus will have access to the wireless network. The authors are fortunate to be among the early users of the wireless network, including some time prior to the network itself through the use of portable wireless network hubs.

The three authors of this article come from different perspectives. One is a university librarian, who regularly conducts information literacy instruction for diverse groups of undergraduate and graduate students using a wireless laptop lab for hands-on literature searches. One is a university faculty member who regularly teaches distance education courses using synchronous video, employing wireless laptops to provide hands-on activities for all students at both local and remote sites. One is a university faculty member who is working to integrate wireless technology into the educational technology graduate courses which she teaches. Our experience encompasses both Windows and Macintosh wireless environments and wireless labs containing from six to twenty-six laptops in a classroom setting.

The purpose of this article is to share some of the experiences and concerns that we have encountered while teaching a variety of classes in wireless laptop lab settings. We don't pretend to have all the answers, or even to have a comprehensive list of all the questions--but in setting up and working with wireless laptops in a classroom setting, we have been forced to confront quite a number of issues (some anticipated, some not). We would like to share these issues, our thought processes, the decisions we have made, and the consequences as we understand them.

RATIONALE

There are several reasons to consider a wireless laptop lab as an alternative to a traditional computer lab. One reason is lack of space; computer labs are bulky, and educational facilities often lack sufficient space to dedicate additional square footage to a new computer lab. …