BUILDING BETTER COST-EFFECTIVE SCHOOLS

For at least the last 10 years, both older and modern schools have been incorporating the latest technologies in their new designs and additions. State-of-the-art computer systems, fiber optics, innovative equipment for faster data retrieval, LANs, WANs and multimedia labs all require careful planning in facility renovation and construction to ensure the most cost-effective and efficient use in learning and administration. Given the rapid advancement of technology, how can a school effectively plan ahead for five or 10 years in order to avoid continuous costly building upgrades? Wireless technology may be the answer, but even wireless requires careful planning.

Flexibility and Savings

Although continuously improving, wireless still lags behind wired connections in terms of speed. However, its tremendous flexibility proves attractive to many school systems. "From an instructional perspective, wireless networking is the technology that removes the barrier to schoolwide network access," says Dr. William Richardson, president of Educational Systems Planning (ESP) of Annapolis, Md. ESP works with architects and school systems in the design of new schools to translate desired learning environments into effective technology-oriented learning space layouts and designs.

Wylie Independent School District, in Wylie, Texas, has been using wireless technology for about a year and a half. "Our mobile wireless labs, laptop carts with access points which can go wherever they are needed, have been very successful," says David Spann, director of technology. "Our teachers use them almost every single minute. They simply roll a cart into a room, plug it into an electrical outlet, connect it to the data drop and hand each student a laptop. The speed of wireless has been perfectly adequate for typical classroom activities because the communication between the access point and the laptop is minimal," Spann explains. Using wireless laptops, teachers, students and administrators can be connected anywhere on campus. In classrooms, students can learn and test online; in libraries, they can do research; and in gyms, they can track their fitness progress. Carts that contain multiple laptops also come in handy for faculty and administrative meetings.

Another benefit of wireless is its ease and speed of installation. Because it is so easy to incorporate wireless with an existing wired infrastructure, many school systems are using wireless as a backup or an extension of their wired LAN or WAN. If fibers are cut, for example, a quick switch to the wireless network maintains uninterrupted connectivity. The handheld devices, which many schools are beginning to use, also integrate easily into a wireless network. From a technical perspective, "wireless is a great solution in areas where hardwired connections are not feasible," says Scott Boyd, a consultant with ESP. "A historic building or all-brick construction, for example, may make cabling prohibitive."

"Wireless is also an excellent choice for schools with small classrooms that lack space for stationary computers," says Spann. "Laptop carts can simply be removed when not in use, leaving room for other teaching activities." Further, when schools outgrow their facilities and bring in portable trailers to house temporary classrooms and administrative offices, wireless is the quickest way to provide connectivity for those installations. "Some of our campuses, which are currently connected with a fiber network, are using wireless for portable buildings," says Spann. "We plan to use wireless for all our new buildings."

While wireless is not necessarily less expensive than wired connectivity, it has become very competitive. Schools are finding that they quickly recoup any initial expense because they can use equipment much more efficiently. Instead of hardwired computers sitting idle in unoccupied classrooms, a cart of 30 laptops is in constant use as it travels around the building.

Using Technology Effectively

The cutting-edge exchange of electronic information has dramatically increased the sophistication of curriculum, programs and operations. Teachers have become facilitators who help students find a wealth of resources for learning rather than lecturing with reliance on a single textbook. In testing, technology provides immediate real-time interaction between student and teacher. Scoring and distribution of grades have become immediate.

Designing Around Technology

The designs of educational facilities are changing in response to the increased sophistication of teaching, learning and administration. Some applications require larger classrooms to accommodate technology. For example, projectors that display data from the teacher's computer take up more room than monitors. On the other hand, wireless laptops take up much less room than stationary computers. Hallway computers allow more effective use of wired equipment but require wider spaces. Power requirements have increased dramatically, and air conditioners have increased in size because of the tremendous heat generated by the technology.

Current and future technology requires careful planning in additions, renovations and new builds. Technology can only serve to enhance learning and related academic and administrative work if it is optimally accessible. "Architectural structures designed with aesthetics in mind may turn into 'antennas' that interfere with the wireless signal's path,” says Boyd.“It's therefore essential to conduct a site survey in which a signal is beamed around the school to see how it behaves. It's impossible to predict it from a model."

Spann agrees adding, "The location of data drops is another important consideration. Don't place it too close to a cabinet or in some out-of-the-way place where connection becomes too difficult. In wiring a whole new building, it's best to install antennas not in classrooms, but in hallways so they can cover the rooms on both sides. Different manufacturers' signals behave very differently and may require a completely different layout of transmitters," says Boyd.

For both wired and wireless applications, it's essential that schools work closely with architects and engineers in the wiring of buildings. Richardson emphasizes that, "at a minimum, all new or modernized schools should be wireless ready and supported by a combination of hard-wired and wireless communications infrastructure. Such an environment will allow the typical learning area to support high bandwidth teacher video presentation areas, technology learning centers, wireless student collaboration areas and student Internet access."

Planning for Technology

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n the past, architects and engineers designed and built buildings, and then the school installed the technology. Now buildings are designed and built around the school's specific technology needs. Engineers design pathways for communications cabling, and architects design the size of classrooms and width of hallways with computerization in mind. Even a wireless system requires wires to connect to the Ethernet and antennas in ceilings or on roofs.

Experienced designers know that classroom antennas are only part of the picture because students and teachers will want to connect in cafeterias, lounges and outdoor areas. A building-to-building WAN also requires a roof antenna and suitable wiring. The idea is to allow everyone to be connected anywhere on campus to give them better use of their time.

Adequate technology planning in the design of a new building or entire school takes about six months. In cooperation with architects and engineers, school administrators establish their technology needs and determine the required number and size of classrooms, labs, equipment rooms, libraries, offices and other areas. Design needs also include pockets for network printers and the new network copiers that double as printers and scanners. Thorough research by engineers and architects into the institution's technology and building requirements results in designs that provide optimal use of the technology within budget constraints.

The continuing rapid changes in technology make planning ahead a true challenge. Many school systems want to plan for technology five to 10 years out, which is next to impossible. Again, the use of wireless technology contributes to the success of long-range planning because future up-grades are much easier than cabling changes. A speed upgrade involvesa simple software change and a replacement of Ethernet cards, which are inexpensive.

Whether wired or wireless, schools can best translate student learning needs into functional designs with their engineering, architecture and technology partners when they have educated themselves on the latest technologies, future trends and consequent facility requirements. "We plan ahead for emerging technologies by doing as much research as we can," says Spann. "We frequently attend workshops and conventions."

Wireless Is Here to Stay

Quite a few schools are still holding off on wireless because they are expecting it to get faster. However, given the ease of upgrading wireless, why wait? The best way to begin is by using it for new additions and remodels, and then gradually changing over the entire network. Wired and wireless integrate smoothly in a single network, so incremental changeovers are not a problem. In renovations, additions, new buildings and entire new schools, it's best to choose architects and engineers who are not only experienced with a wide range of educational facilities, but also have the technology expertise to be able to design for the latest advances and future upgrades.

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