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Schools build mobile 'study force'

One-to-One laptop program in Canada sparks rethinking of educational methods.

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August 16, 2006 04:09 PM ET - A Canadian public school district has launched a mobile computing project that will eventually equip 20,000 students with laptop access anytime, anywhere over a pervasive wireless LAN.

The heart of the one-laptop-per-student project, called One-to-One, will be the development of digital coursework. To that end, the Abbotsford School District in British Columbia is adding a learning-management software program and training teachers in designing courses and schoolwork specifically for laptop-toting students.

Abbotsford is a city of 122,000 in the scenic Fraser Valley, an hour’s drive from Vancouver and just 15 minutes from the U.S. border. There are 50 schools in the K-12 system, with about 2,000 teachers and support staff.

Two years ago, the district’s leadership launched the One-to-One project after reviewing research that showed learning improved when students worked on their own computers with round-the-clock access to course materials, research and other resources, says Ray Jung, the district’s vice president of IT.

To test those conclusions, the district in 2004 distributed Apple iBook laptops to the 400 students of a new high school, Abbotsford Traditional Secondary School. The school had an extensive 10/100 wired Ethernet, with six drops in each classroom. But Jung’s team also deployed a wireless LAN, based on Apple’s WLAN product line.

The results were intriguing, according to Jung. The computers enabled a much wider range of student interaction with course materials, with teachers and with each other, and seemed to spark more intense student involvement. “In writing [for example], we’re finding that students are reviewing and editing their material a lot more, and there’s a lot more peer editing: they’re sharing, reviewing and critiquing [each other’s work],” Jung says.

In the new school year, Jung says, there will be more applications and tools that use pictures, video and audio for more interactive learning.

But the initial wireless LAN ran into problems. The most pressing was the sheer number of client laptops in a given area, which bogged down network performance. The IT staff was getting up to five trouble calls per day related to the wireless net. Security was minimal, based on the still widely used but easily crackable Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption scheme. “People were running out to Best Buy for access points and plugging them in,” he recalls.

Jung’s IT staff began evaluating enterprise-scale WLAN products that could support districtwide deployment and robust security.

Last year, the district chose the WLAN product line from Colubris Networks of Waltham, Mass. Performance has been flawless, Jung says. And Colubris offers a range of management and security-monitoring tools that let central IT staff remotely control the nets at different sites.

Another application simplifies the design of the WLAN at a given site. “You incorporate a building drawing, and it factors in construction composition [variables] and suggests where to locate the access points,” Jung says. “We liked that, because radio frequency planning is something of an art.”

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