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Learning on the roam: St. John's University goes wireless campuswide

St John's University's new wireless campus lets students log on anytime, anywhere.

Groups of students relaxing on a broad green lawn, chatting in the cafeteria, or goofing around in the student union -- all hallmarks of campus life. But at St. John's University in Queens, New York, those typical scenes have a new twist -- students using their laptops to check e-mail or access the Internet nearly everywhere on campus.

St. John's students got a jolt of virtual power last fall, when the school started giving out IBM Thinkpad laptops to every incoming member of the freshman class, as well as full-time faculty. With these laptops comes the ability to log on to St. John's wireless network, which stretches across nearly every public space on the 105 acre campus. Students can use the Wi-Fi network to do things such as check e-mail, register for classes, check grades, submit homework and do Internet-based research.

The wireless project is part of St. John's Academic Computing Initiative, which supports the University's educational mission of helping the underprivileged. St. John's was founded on the values of St. Vincent de Paul, the patron saint of charity; the school's student body, therefore, is more economically diverse than those found on many college campuses.

"We have students who...don't have much access to computing," said Joe Tufano, executive director of IT at St. John's. "We wanted to level the playing field."

The school decided to equip every one of the 3,100 incoming freshmen with a laptop. As a way to kickstart laptop usage, Tufano and his staff came up with the idea for the Wi-Fi network. "We wanted the students to be able to use them all around campus," Trufano said, particularly the public spaces, since St. John's has a lot of commuting students. The school also gave more than 400 laptops to faculty members, hoping that faculty-student interaction would boost buy-in for the project.

According to Jim Perrino, a managing director at BearingPoint in New York City, St. John's new network has proved to be a competitive advantage when it comes to recruiting students. "I've heard peer schools say that they lost students to St. John's because of that program," said Perrino, who helped design the network.

Although Tufano and other university administrators had been mulling the idea for several months, financing and the official sign-off didn't come until May, leaving Tufano and his staff four short months to implement the project. "It was very ambitious and a tremendous challenge," said Perrino. Go live date: September 1, when the freshmen arrived.

The team targeted the major public spaces of the library, student union and main quadrangle of the primary campus in Queens (St. John's also has campuses in Staten Island, Manhattan, Oakdale, and Rome, Italy.) The initial project was to install about 200 Cisco Aironet 1200 Series Access Points, and roll out the rest of the wireless network in phases.

Tufano said that they caught a break in that all of their buildings already had updated wiring; for the most part, they just had to connect the access points to the existing infrastructure. "We had the switches in the closets, we just had to add the power modules to the access points," he said.

Despite that advantage, his team still faced a grueling summer of rolling out cable and connecting access points. "We in the technology field have a problem," laughed Tufano. "Wireless technology is still wired."

On top of the network setup was the logistical nightmare of buying, configuring and distributing 3,100 student laptops, to say nothing of the training sessions.

Each student received a 45 minute "care and feeding" session when they got their laptop. Student volunteers showed them how to log on, get into e-mail and access the school's internal and external portals.

Students who already own wireless-enabled laptops can also use the Wi-Fi network by registering their computers with the IS staff.

Tufano's staff didn't rest after the initial 200 access points were installed, expanding the network to the rest of the Queens campus, as well as the academic campuses at St Johns. "We just finished Rome last week," Tufano said. "I think we have close to 500 access points in place at this point."

Tufano said that the main reason the project came off so successfully was the enormous spirit of cooperation he encountered from every department on campus.

"It worked because every organization in the university worked with us," he said. It was a team effort, and not just IT -- every administrative and academic area was so involved."

Final grade? A+

About the author: Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer in Wellesley, Mass.

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