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The untethered classroom

How one small college is betting on wireless technology to take learning to the next level

Robert Tidwell knows that not all learning takes place in a classroom. Take, for example, the biology teacher who regularly conducts classes in a wooded area near campus. Or the impromptu discussions that crop up around the sunken amphitheater on campus at San Juan College, a 5,000-plus student campus in Farmington, New Mexico. But until recently, Tidwell, the CIO at the school, couldn't extend his technical web of support to offbeat areas such as this.

"Student and faculty move around all the time, from dorms and offices to classrooms to field locations," he says. "The faculty in particular are constantly moving, but could only access the network from a fixed desktop in offices and classrooms. I thought about getting laptops into their hands, but it's not useful if you can't untether them."

But Tidwell couldn't afford to install a wireless local area network (WLAN) until last fall, when he wangled a deal with Gateway. The company installed the network for him, and he bought Gateway laptops for his faculty in return. Tidwell's WLAN currently comprises 140 access points scattered throughout the campus, and he plans to expand the network to include selected outdoor areas -- such as the biology field site -- this summer.

Right now, the network is Internet access only. Tidwell is barring wireless access to the campus wired network until he has the makers of his security software give his setup the final thumbs up. "We've got all the security equipment configured, and we should be rolling by the end of May," he says.

In fact, Tidwell says that security is the first of three big issues to watch out for when it comes to installing a WLAN:


  • Security. Security is a challenge for wireless networks simply because standards-based security protocols such as Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP) are easily broken. (In fact, a research group from the University of California at Berkeley recently published a report citing "major security flaws" in WEP.) Tidwell therefore turned to a proprietary hardware and software from Vernier Networks Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. "Vernier uses heavier duty VPN technology," says Tidwell. As well as access control, the software also provides centralized management as well as other perks such as location intelligence, where the network can sense if somebody is logging on from, say the Math and Science building, and will automatically take them to the matching site on the school's intranet.

    Most importantly, the software resides on the network rather than the laptop, an important issue when dealing with a network that will host many student-owned laptops. "I don't want to touch a student's computer," says Tidwell, "So we needed to created a level of security that allows login and authentication sessions to be encrypted without having to install anything on the laptop." Vernier, which plugs into the access points on the network, fills the bill.


  • Change management. Installing a wireless LAN means that IT staffers have to learn new technologies -- but more importantly, it changes many of the policies and procedures that traditionally govern functions within the department. For example, take the mundane task of installing a desktop unit. Many IT folks will identify the unit on the network by the building in which it resides. "Now, they have to change their entire mindset to one where devices can be anywhere, anytime," says Tidwell. "It's forced a lot of change in the IT department."

    Tidwell prepared his staff for the upcoming changes by buying them laptops two years ago, so they could grapple with the issues firsthand. As questions and challenges came up, the staff created new policies and procedures to match the college's wireless vision. "We tried to work through these things ahead of time to make the transition as easy as possible," says Tidwell.


  • Network Management. Wireless LANs also complicate management of the original wired network. "I more than doubled the number of network devices by adding 140 access points to the network," points out Tidwell. Since every access point requires a switch port on the wired network, some planning is certainly in order. "Some of our wiring closets didn't have enough ports," says Tidwell. He also advocates software that monitors network activity closely. "It's very important to do that, because you need to keep an eye out for rogue access points that hackers can try to attach," he says.

    Network monitoring equipment also helps him keep 'port scanning' -- in which hackers check out network devices in search of an open TCP/IP port to access—under control. "It happens a lot in higher education," he says. Finally, monitoring also lets Tidwell keep an eye on usage, so he knows when he needs to add more access points, for example.

One step at a time
Tidwell has more plans for his wireless network, including adding wireless phones that work all over the campus, but he doesn't want to overwhelm folks with too much, too soon. By August almost all fulltime faculty will have laptops, and as they start bringing them to the classroom he expects that wireless usage will really take off.

"They'll be modeling the behavior to the students, and it will just escalate. People will look back and really say, 'Whoa!' at how much things have changed."

Technology highlights
Here's an overview of the products and technologies put into place at San Juan College:

Access Points: Cisco Aironet 1200 Access Points. These APs accept antennas for both 802.11a and 802.11b frequencies

Security: Vernier Networks Inc. security software and hardware

Laptops: Tidwell has bought about 150 Gateway laptops for his faculty, and student laptops should also easily hook into the network as long as they have a wireless card.

Network management: Tidwell uses parts of Cisco Works network management software to monitor network activity.

Wiring: Ironically, "We used 23 1,000 foot spools of wire for our wireless network," laughs Tidwell.

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

More on this topic:

>> Find out all you need to know to get your enterprise started toward wireless freedom in's Best Web Links section.

>> Listen to a recent Webcast on "Wireless Mobility: Issues and Solutions for the Real World," presented by mobile expert Tim Scannell.

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