Features

Wireless, Not Penniless

Early adopters say don’t expect cost savings, but other advantages by BRETT SCHAEFFER
Superintendent Lon Schneider is not alone among school leaders in his desire to make the most of his limited dollars.

So Schneider considers it a significant badge of honor that he saved his small, rural Michigan district $7,000 by adopting a wireless Internet connection rather than hardwiring all the classrooms.

“It’s difficult to provide dial-up [Internet] service for every student and staff member,” says Schneider, who has led the Manton Consolidated Schools since December of 2001. “Wireless solutions give students more options.”

And, in some cases, they provide school districts with a cost-effective solution to their technology puzzles.

Schneider’s district in 2001 installed five wireless access points, or hubs, that provide online access for all of its classrooms. The hubs cost $700 each, a total of $3,500, and each can connect up to 60 students at one time.

Manton is a 1,033-student, kindergarten through 12th -grade district, but each school—elementary, middle and high school—is housed within one enormous building. Wiring each classroom would have cost three times as much as going wireless, Schneider says.

Each of the district’s 65 teachers are equipped with laptop computers and the students use a pair of mobile computer labs—one for the high school students and one shared between the middle and elementary school students. The mobile labs each contain 30 computers.

Broader Access
Ease of computer access is a big factor for Manton, says Schneider, whose district is located toward the northwest corner of the state, far from extra educational resources offered in university towns such as Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan.

Instead, Schneider’s students can take 28 different college-level classes online, from courses in environmental science to U.S. government, as part of the Michigan Virtual High School program.

Manton students—half of whom receive a free or reduced lunch—typically don’t have the opportunity to travel to places such as the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., explains Schneider. But a teacher can use the wireless computer lab and take the kids on a virtual museum tour. “We bring the [museum] to them,” he says.

Online Curriculum
At School Administrative District 4 in Guilford, Maine, students already have laptops, thanks in part to a state-funded technology program that is providing every 7th and 8th grader statewide with a laptop, but primarily due to the district’s own initiative.

Through a $300,000 grant from the Maine Public Utilities Commission and additional funding from the district, all 75 teachers and 525 students enrolled in 8th through 12th grades in Guilford are equipped with a laptop computer. Students at the district’s Piscataquis Community High School are the only high schoolers in the state, thus far, to have their own laptops.

In addition to solving the computer access problem, by providing students with laptops and connecting them through a wireless network, Superintendent Matthew Oliver expects significant savings, figuring that textbooks for five core subjects cost about $60 each, or $300 per student. “These textbooks, very aggressively speaking, will last 10 years,” he says.

Because all of the teachers and students in Guilford are equipped with a laptop computer, online texts now make sense, Oliver says.

“I can get 23 tremendously innovative, stimulating, constantly updated … online curriculum courses that will engage students for $175 per student over that same 10-year period,” says Oliver.

A Pennsylvania-based firm, Beyond Books.com, produces the online curriculum, which can cost anywhere from $1 to $17.50 for the entire 23-course high school package. The fees are essentially subscription costs to access the online material for one year. The curriculum is grouped into individual subject-area packages. For instance, the high school social studies package includes nine online curriculum programs for high school students and teachers in American history, American government, European history and culture and geography.

Buying the online texts at $17.50 each year for a decade for each student, or $175 per student compared to $300 per student for published texts, saves the district $125 per student, Oliver figures.

Wireless Growth
Though Oliver and Schneider head relatively small districts, it’s not unusual for even the tiniest of districts to possess a high level of tech savvy. School districts nationwide are increasingly adopting wireless technologies.

School districts will spend $776 million on wireless technologies for the 2002-2003 school year, an increase of 57 percent from the previous year, according to a recent study by the California-based research firm The Peak Group. The projected total represents approximately 14 percent of all educational technology expenditures in K-12 schools nationwide, according to the report.

The study is based on a survey of 184 public and private schools and school districts across the country, and the results reveal considerable increases in the use of wireless technology.

More than 60 percent of respondents reported they currently use some form of wireless technology in their schools and school districts; 29 percent indicated they are in the piloting stage; and another 35 percent said they are evaluating and reviewing wireless.

The use of wireless local area networks, like those in place in the Manton and Guilford school districts, increased 50 percent last year, and laptop use increased 43 percent, according to the survey results.

Meanwhile, technology companies continue to move in a wireless direction. In December, AT&T, IBM and Intel announced the formation of a new company to create a nationwide wireless network. The newly formed company, Cometa Networks, intends to establish more than 20,000 wireless access points by the end of 2004, primarily in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, according to reports.

Notions that once seemed far-fetched for most schools, such as students popping open their laptops from their own backyard to access homework on a district network, could become the norm. However, thinking of new technology as a cost-savings measure doesn’t always come naturally to school leaders, yet for some the practice is old hat.

An Early Adopter
A suburban district outside San Diego, Calif., can trace back its aggressive and innovative approach 11 years, to a time when most educators hadn’t yet heard of the Internet let alone wireless networks.

In 1992, the Lemon Grove Unified School District, with eight schools serving kindergarten through 8th grade, spent $164,000 to build a microwave transmission tower—or in today’s lingo, a WiFi tower. Three years later, six of its schools had a wireless Internet connection, and district officials had a great bargaining tool.

Ownership of the tower put the Lemon Grove district in an enviable position. (In Manton, Mich., for example, the town owns the tower and allows the school district to use it for free.)

By 2000, the 4,600-student district had brokered a deal with the town of Lemon Grove to provide wireless Internet services for several city agencies in exchange for property easements that allowed the school district to install its own high-speed cable lines.

That meant the other two schools, those closest to central office, could connect to the district network using cable lines. This is where the real savings came in to the picture, Superintendent L. McLean King says, because the district then could install its own telephone lines.

“We don’t pay a dime to call from school to school or from the main office to a school,” he says. “We’ve put a dial tone in every classroom, and it’s free. Most districts can’t do that.”

The rewards of the tower don’t end there, however. This year the district has struck a deal with AT&T Wireless. Instead of the district emptying its pockets to make upgrades to the tower, AT&T will cover the cost of the upgrade—$48,000, says King— in exchange for use of the tower as a cellular transmitter.

“The tower works for AT&T, and for us it offsets infrastructure costs,” King says.

While King is bullish about wireless technology as a potential cost saver, he disagrees with other school leaders on where those savings lie.

King doesn’t see his grade schoolers toting laptops anytime soon, meaning online textbooks are unlikely. However, he does see an increasingly paperless future for teachers, students and parents. “Report cards online are coming sooner than online textbooks” in Lemon Grove, he says.

His school district is likely to create what he calls “one-stop shopping” for student information: test scores, medical records, attendance rates, etc.—all online, all transferable from grade to grade and all accessible by parents and teachers.

Other districts realize they can leverage their wireless technologies in other, somewhat less lucrative, ways.

Back in Maine, Matthew Oliver’s computer lab at Piscataquis Community High School, which houses desktop computers and is connected via high-speed cable, can be dismantled now that all students have laptops.

The lab could be offered to local businesses, Oliver theorizes, in some bartering arrangement or it could be transformed into valuable classroom space, meaning the school can get rid of its portable classroom, which itself would be a cost savings. “We could sure use the space,” the superintendent says.

For Ken Crush, director of finance in the Henrico County, Va., schools, the savings from going wireless are more of the incidental variety.

This is the second year of the district’s widely publicized laptop initiative, which put 23,000 laptop computers in the hands of its high school students and teachers. It remains the largest initiative of its kind.

Leasing those laptop computers from Apple didn’t save the district any money, but it did allow the district to give more students computer access. For every $2,000 desktop machine it could have bought, the district picked up two laptops, Crush says.

This year Henrico’s laptop program has expanded into the middle schools. Some parents expressed misgivings about turning over laptops to 7th and 8th graders. “But the computers didn’t go to the middle school kids until the parents had used the machines first and received four hours of training,” Crush says.

Again, providing the middle school students with laptops was primarily an access decision not a financial one. Where Henrico has found savings is in non-technology costs.

“Instead of buying each student a desk, the district is buying tables and putting two kids at each table,” where they work using their laptops, which are linked to the district’s wireless network, he says.

Like the Guilford district in Maine, Henrico schools use online instruction and some online assessments, which saves the district on some expenses for paper supplies and textbooks, Crush adds.

All About Access
Increased access was also the impetus for the recent wireless efforts in Community High School District 230 in Orland Park, Ill.

Located in Chicago’s south suburbs, the three-school district first set up a wireless network in 1999. Mobile carts—each outfitted with 16 laptops and a wireless access point—connect students to the Internet, says district technology director Darrell Walery.

Like Lemon Grove, Walery’s district built its own microwave tower—two actually, at a total cost of $60,000. Though AT&T hasn’t come knocking on his door, Walery sees the investment in the towers as a huge cost saving for the 7,700-student district.

Monthly fees for high-speed cable lines can run between $200 and $400, depending on a district’s size, Walery says. “That’s probably the biggest savings most schools can get right now.”

Still, he is always on the lookout for new ways to give students greater computer access at a low cost.

He believes in the “anywhere, anytime” learning theory that’s become a popular mantra in education. So last year he initiated a pilot program that achieved both of those goals.

Buying more laptops was not in the district’s budget. And it wasn’t in the budget of the district’s students, especially at a cost of $1,200 each.

Walery, however, realized that with a $200 personal digital assistant a student could obtain anytime, anywhere access.

The district negotiated a deal with Palm, a manufacturer of PDAs, that allowed students to buy or lease a Palm Pilot, a handheld computing device that stores addresses and phone numbers and allows word-processing and data-entry applications.

Nearly one-third of the district’s 7,700 students took part in the initial rollout, encouraged by teachers who had planned their lessons to incorporate the use of the PDAs.

The devices did not connect to the Internet or offer the computing power of a laptop, says Walery, but because of their size they were much more mobile. The devices also offered instantaneous information.

In one high school science class last year, students attached a special sensing device to their PDAs and took them outside to measure oxygen concentrations in a pond, explains Walery. The sensing devices were dropped into various areas and depths of water to measure the effect of sunlight on plant growth, he says. The information then was graphed instantly using special software on the PDAs.

Students could see their results immediately rather than waiting to graph the data in the classroom hours later, and they also could transfer those graphs directly to their teacher’s PDA using the infrared sensor on each machine.

Though the program was a success, Walery isn’t certain it will expand at this point. He’s waiting to see what other wireless technology may soon make its way to schools.

Time Savings
For some school districts the decision to go wireless is based more on saving time than money.

“We’re not saving money,” says Jess Stephens, director of information technology in the Campbell Unified School District in San Jose, Calif. “In some cases we’re breaking even.”

The reason Campbell went wireless, says Stephens, is for versatility and speed. In the six-high school, 8,000-student district, wiring the classrooms in each building would’ve taken much longer than simply installing a few wireless access points, he says.

The trade-off is that buying laptops with wireless capabilities costs about $150 more per machine, putting the expense close to $2,000 per computer, he says. “We’re spending a little extra money per laptop, but it makes sense,” he says.

The district first began its wireless initiative four years ago when it rolled out, literally, laptop carts for its schools. The district now has 20 mobile carts, each with 30 computers and a wireless printer, says Stephens.

“And we haven’t lost one [computer],” he adds.

What’s Next?
As districts search for the right technology solutions, more options are becoming available. A hybrid of the PDA and the laptop is the latest technology making its way to the schools.

The Tablet PC proposes to combine the power and Internet capabilities of a laptop with the portability and the price of a PDA. A basic Tablet PC may cost as little as $200, according to some manufacturer projections.

In Lemon Grove, teachers already are testing prototypes of several different Tablets, most with color screens and foldout keyboards.

If the Tablet technology catches on, Walery in Orland Park, Ill., envisions a potentially cost-efficient and textbook-free future where “schools say to high school freshmen: ‘You need to buy a tablet for $400 and all of your textbooks are on there.’”

“We’re already seeing things close to that,” he says.

Brett Schaeffer is an education free-lance writer based in California. E-mail: brett_schaeffer@hotmail.com.