Younger students are unplugged but well-connected

Mariam Carroll is a ninth-grader at Palmer Trinity School in Miami. Like most of her peers, she carries a laptop to hook into the school’s intranet and the public Internet via a wireless Ethernet card.

“Before school, I sometimes go to the library and check my homework, and during lunch, I can go outside and still be connected,” she explains.

As in higher education, wireless connectivity in primary and secondary schools brings technology to older buildings without cables and integrates the computer into the classroom.

Yet the biggest challenge for these schools is using technology to enhance learning instead of seeing it as something else that needs to be taught, according to educational consultant Greg Butler.

“Technology amplifies what kids can do, and wireless amplifies it even further,” said Butler, president of In Touch With Learning in Seattle.

Take Frank Ruston Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan. “When we study dinosaurs, the kids now use the computers at their desks to go to various Web sites and research the subject on-line,” said Bruce Haber, technology facilitator at the school, which uses a motorized mobile cart to take notebook computers to where teachers and students need them.

At the Mount Rainier, Md., elementary school, computerized “smart boards” sometimes substitute for blackboards and allow teachers and students to create documents or search the Web together. The touch-sensitive screen is visible to all students in the room, said Pauline Carey, technology co-coordinator at the school.

Elementary students in the Douglas County school district between Denver and Colorado Springs, Col. check out wireless-enabled notebook computers from a central depository and take them to gym class. From there, they can tap into the school network and track their exercise routines, said Gary Murphy, the school district’s director of information and technology services.

Murphy said each of the school district’s three primary schools now has four wireless Ethernet access points. He said he likes the ease of installation and the overall reliability of his school’s 11Mbps wireless Ethernet.

And compared with last year, when the cost to install wireless Ethernet was 10 to 15 per cent more than installing a wired system using Category 5 copper cable, wired and wireless cost about the same today, said Murphy.

Palmer Trinity estimates it will have spent US$750,000 on its wireless network when the three-year project is finished next year. Its 24 – soon to become 35 – wireless Ethernet access points link Palmer’s 600 middle and high school students across eight campus buildings.

“I can’t imagine doing what we do without wireless,” said Judy Andrews, associate head of the private school, which serves grades six to 12.

Going wireless is what permitted the Kansas City, Kan., school system to upgrade the networks in all 48 of its schools this summer, said Dave Hiatt, the school district’s director of technology and information systems.

Teachers and students use the network to do research and find out about assignments and homework preparation.

But all this technology has a downside. Carey warns that once installed, the technology must be kept up-to-date as the number of techno-savvy kids grows. And keeping kids away from pornography-laden Web sites is of special concern.

Carey said her school system uses an Internet service provider, HiFusion, whose filtering is so aggressive that she advises teachers who need access to search engines for research to get separate Internet service provider accounts.

And filters are sometimes needed for a different reason: to remind the kids that the computers aren’t toys. The Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, has installed filters that prevent students from visiting MP3 Web sites, said Joe Fisher, the school’s director of information systems.

“But they keep finding new ones,” Fisher said, so he has to continually add new sites to the filter.