Wireless Computer Labs

Wireless Computer Labs

Lawrence A. Tomei (Robert Morris University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-503-2.ch401

Abstract

In February 2000, three seemingly unrelated events came together to present a unique challenge at one mid-Atlantic university—a challenge that is being experienced more and more by colleges and universities across the country. First, the faculty approved a new undergraduate teacher preparation curriculum that would include instructional technology in both the first two semesters of the freshman year and three semesters in their junior and senior years—12 new sections of technology- based training. Second, a graduate degree in instructional technology was growing beyond even its most optimistic predictions. In less than four semesters, enrollment increased from 24 to 140 students. Third, funds, staffing support, and classroom space had not been programmed for yet another much-needed computer facility and renovations to available space were cost-prohibitive. To meet the demands for more technology resources, a new multimedia classroom was proposed. Estimated to cost over $200,000, the proposal was rejected by senior administrators due to budgetary considerations. It was clear that to resolve this dilemma, the program director needed to think “outside the box”.
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Introduction

In February 2000, three seemingly unrelated events came together to present a unique challenge at one mid-Atlantic university—a challenge that is being experienced more and more by colleges and universities across the country.

First, the faculty approved a new undergraduate teacher preparation curriculum that would include instructional technology in both the first two semesters of the freshman year and three semesters in their junior and senior years—12 new sections of technology-based training. Second, a graduate degree in instructional technology was growing beyond even its most optimistic predictions. In less than four semesters, enrollment increased from 24 to 140 students. Third, funds, staffing support, and classroom space had not been programmed for yet another much-needed computer facility and renovations to available space were cost-prohibitive.

To meet the demands for more technology resources, a new multimedia classroom was proposed. Estimated to cost over $200,000, the proposal was rejected by senior administrators due to budgetary considerations. It was clear that to resolve this dilemma, the program director needed to think “outside the box”.

Enter the wireless lab. With 29 multimedia-ready classroom and student computer labs already on campus, weaknesses in pedagogy had been recognized for years. Increasingly, labs contain outdated hardware and software. The inflexibility of scheduling, location, and access to desktop capabilities made computer labs unattractive to many faculty members. And the cost! For the price of a single multimedia-ready classroom, a department can purchase 3-4 portable wireless labs, incorporating the power of technology with the more traditional classroom. Wireless carts can be rolled into classrooms, making scheduling conflicts a thing of the past. CDROM, printers, and overhead projectors can be appended to the cart with little hassle. And, perhaps most important, with the deployment of a wireless access point, only one network connection is required to make all 24 computers Internet-ready.

The wireless lab was identified as the most promising technology to address these issues. It enables an entire class to be online at the same time—simultaneously surfing different Wweb sites, accessing e-mail, creating documents, and swapping files through a single Internet connection. It seems the perfect cost-effective solution for schools with limited budgets and facilities at capacity or those who simply want a more flexible networking solution. The specific advantages of a wireless lab are best represented by examining how it was integrated into six university courses and programs.

The university’s Introduction to Educational Technology course is similar to many such first-year familiarization courses. It provides an introduction to the various classroom technologies. Students use the wireless lab to master the complete set of basic skills and competencies required before entering the masters program. Using the laptops, students are introduced to word processing, spreadsheets, graphics presentation, and the Internet. The lab offers students more opportunities for both abstract and concrete, practical hands-on experiences. Using wireless labs frees the multimedia facility for more classroom-centered teaching (and technology-intensive applications) while offering the complete suite of software, hardware, and network concepts demanded of the graduate program in technology. One anecdotal comment lifted from a student’s evaluation claimed, “When then instructor rolled in that wireless lab, learning really took off.”

A companion course, Assessment of Instructional Technology, evaluates “best practices” for using instructional technology in the classroom and was previously taught without technology due to space and access considerations. The wireless lab allows students to simulate online quizzes, download test banks, and demonstrate educational software. The flexibility provided by the wireless lab made all the difference in student understanding of the material while providing them the ability to work at their own pace.

Two other non-technical courses, Social Studies Methods and Elementary School Administration, advanced the practical applications of the wireless lab. Two faculty members needed online access at the same time, so another innovation was initiated in the school. The wireless lab was divided into two to serve both classes simultaneously. Faculty simply rolled the cart into the third floor hallway, distributed 14 machines to one class and 10 machines to the other—and both classes were up and running within minutes.

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