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Wi-Fi, Wide Open: Wireless Technologies in the Age of Communication

In a world of ever-increasing complexity, connectivity is the key to success. Once a concept restricted only to the realm of large corporations, it has fast become a primary factor in taking modern education to new heights. Today, tomorrow, and the next yield new and ever more exciting discoveries, but the bounty of 21st century industry brings with it the challenges of a 21st century labor market. Now more than ever, it is critical that we raise the bar, and even the playing field, to ensure the continued success of our kids, our nation, and our world. As technology trickles down even to the earliest stages of education, we must continue the push to invent new ways of connecting our growing body of students. Wireless technologies are the cornerstone of this movement to bring together today’s scholars, to create a virtual mesh of knowledge, a perfect ecosystem for discovery learning, and a revolutionary medium on which to architect curriculum.

In today’s classroom, even some of the most tech-savvy districts in the country must tether their students to desks with bulky workstations, leaving them with no real means of accessing classroom materials from home, or even elsewhere on campus. While schools struggle with the challenges of distance learning and building an online curriculum, major players in IT and consumer electronics are putting together products with the potential to change the game entirely. Today’s marketing buzz words are “durability,” “efficiency,” and “portability,” but amidst the market’s buzz there is a good deal of substance, and real products delivering real world answers to some of the toughest challenges in education technology today. We’re talking about netbooks, and other ultra-portables, equipping consumers with the necessities for basic computing, without investing an arm and a leg for the sake of taking it with them. While many see them simply as a smaller, more affordable alternative to traditional notebooks, they are an absolute gem waiting to be mined by educators and institutions around the globe, read more from here.

Wi-Fi, Wide Open

For those not familiar with the concept of a netbook, essentially what you’re looking at is an ultra-portable, eight-to-twelve-inch notebook equipped with low-voltage, durable hardware, a lightweight chassis, and in most cases, wireless capabilities. Cost of ownership can be anywhere from $200-800, but most fall within the comfortable $300-400 range, depending upon what type of feature set you’re interested in, and what client operating system you’d like to run. Yes, a great deal of these ship with Linux-based operating systems, and while this comes much to the chagrin of business-class users stuck in a Windows-based world, schools have a bit more flexibility, both in the server model they work with, as well as their very open and adaptive user base. Another notable feature is the widespread availability of integrated wireless solutions, from baseline 802.11g chips, to more advanced 802.11n setups, and even mobile broadband (WWAN). These are some of the most advanced wireless technologies in the mainstream market today, and have proven their worth for years now in homes across the nation, but never have we seen them integrated into such an affordable, yet versatile piece of equipment. For those who haven’t been paying attention, the world is going wireless, and education is poised to roll right along with it.

Up until very recently, Wi-Fi was far from a workable solution for true, efficient networking. Laptops were bulky and expensive, old wireless technologies required access points all over campus, and the existing curriculum just wasn’t designed to go mobile. Today we have answers to each and every one of these problems. By implementing netbooks, along with high-range 802.11n Wi-Fi or WWAN services, you can reduce your initial investment through cheaper hardware and fewer access points, while at the same time creating more free space in classrooms, due to a decreased need for workstation machines, and extending access to the school’s network to more students in more places around campus. Companies like Xirrus are paving the way for such implementations with new and increasingly more powerful Wi-Fi management and switching solutions. This new equipment breaks down the barriers of bandwidth and reliability which plagued older wireless technologies, and will form the backbone of our future network.

But as Neil deGrasse Tyson once said of Galileo, “The issue now is not who’s got the telescope, but do you now know what to do with it?”

So here you are, your new wireless network in place, broadcasting the internet to every corner of campus, and a full arsenal of netbooks in every classroom, charged and ready for the day ahead. But what’s it all add up to? Well, short of the final ingredient, not much other than a modest show of technical prowess and a great opportunity for students to update their Facebook status in the middle of English class. What you’re missing is a tangible means of harnessing the vast digital ecosystem before you and putting it to good, educational use. Part of this, institutions can do on their own, but collaboration makes our concoction all the more savory, and in today’s interconnected world, collaboration we shall have!

Let’s begin at the beginning, with schools on a local level. Our goal: To leverage the expertise of faculty and students together to create an open, digital learning community which takes full advantage of our increased connectivity to forward education. The obvious answer that comes to mind is the ever-popular Wiki. For those not familiar with the concept, a Wiki is a collaborative tool, generally web-based, which allows users to create and edit pages in an encyclopedia-style database of information. A Wiki just won’t cut it for this application though, requiring far too much high-level administration, and not enough direct contact amongst the students. We like the communal editing and development, but we don’t want hooligans corrupting the text and ruining everyone’s study materials, and while we’d prefer not have everyone writing their own version of the text, we appreciate knowing who contributed what, and being able to respond to those ideas directly. While the Wiki has been a good first step for many institutions today, we need something a little more refined for tomorrow. Let’s take the idea of digital, communal annotation and apply it to the second piece of our puzzle…

As a student myself, I cannot praise the availability of digital textbooks enough. They provide a lightweight, low-cost alternative to lugging around the traditional backpack, offer easy access from any computer, as well as some special functions like full text search capabilities. While some publishers have made these materials available, there are a number of limitations in the current implementation that just won’t do. For starters, we’re going to want to start integrating these materials directly into our curriculum, meaning solutions accessible only through the publisher’s website have got to migrate. Furthermore, digital copies need to be published in a format which is fully unlocked, accessible, and easy to manipulate, such that schools can tailor the resources to meet their own individual needs. For the time being, we’ll need to take these materials and prep them to work with our particular institution’s software, but in the future we’d like to reach a stage where those in charge of curriculum can actively subscribe to and license various texts through a converged online database of publishers, all offering materials on a universal platform, and push them directly into our school’s digital library in real time, along with our current store of curricula. When a student logs into their classroom resources later that day, they will be presented with a plethora of options to access and interact with relevant materials. Slideshows will be available for viewing via an integrated web-based presenter, notes taken in class the other day can be reviewed and edited in WYSIWYG style using their interactive documents archive, and they have immediate access to not one, but two versions of the class’s textbook via an advanced online reader app. With our new platform, students will be able to read and annotate a copy of each of their textbooks privately, with all of the notes being saved automatically to their networked account. They will also have access to a second, public copy of the book, filled with a collection of annotations their classmates have chosen to publish to the master copy. Color-coded for easy browsing, each annotation also boasts modest thread messaging capabilities, allowing students to comment and discuss the various points which their peers have made regarding this week’s chapter. Which brings us to our final point…

Fact of the matter is, kids today do a lot more networking than many give them credit for, whether they sit down and think about it or not. While Facebook may appear all fun and games, in reality it’s a very powerful tool currently in the process of re-shaping social culture all over the world, and we could stand to learn a thing or two from its success. Students today thrive off of social connectivity, and while the melding of serious academic study and Wall-to-Wall banter is not likely to happen anytime soon, it’s not hard to see that there’s a strong push for identity in these sorts of online congregations. While I would hesitate to promote personal photo galleries or songs-of-the-day on students’ profile pages, unique identities need to be established and recognized if we want the community to flourish and students to really want to be involved in classroom collaboration. Little things like customizable icons for class discussions, and a user-designed homepage, displaying widgets ranging from “Today’s Assignments” to “Today’s News Headlines,” are key to making students feel at home with the tools available to them, and promoting the sort of well-integrated connectivity we’ve been seeking from the start.

So what’s all this got to do with Wi-Fi? Simply put, this sort of a network demands portability. While it is no more difficult to connect a school full of workstations than a swarm of laptops, when we tie ourselves down to those soulless computer desks we lose focus on the task at hand. We lose focus on the message and forget the skills we are here to impart, and the technology we’ve developed becomes more of a chore than a fluid, dynamic part of the learning experience. We should not be using technology to teach students on the same level as decades past. Between an increasingly competitive labor market, and an education system declining on the global scale, we face a two-part problem which requires a two-part solution. Technology needs to forward education, just as education forwards technology, as we continue to seek a synergy of the two which will inspire today’s young minds and drive them to a successful tomorrow.