Students learning how to use their new laptop computers at Auburn Middle School in Auburn, Maine, can surf the internet and exchange eMail without tripping over network cables or power cords.

Fast-growing wireless technology means there is no spaghetti-like jumble of cables in the classrooms here. More importantly, the technology is making possible Gov. Angus King’s vision of a computer on the lap of all seventh- and eighth-graders, because it’s so much cheaper than running wires through schools.

The same wireless technology that keeps people connected on Palm Pilots and lets a family surf the net on the porch will allow students to stay connected in class, in the lunchroom, and even outside on the basketball court.

Without it, the Maine project, which already carries a price tag of more than $30 million, would have been too expensive to fathom, officials said.

In Guilford, which received laptop computers two years ago independent of the current initiative, it would have taken 25 ethernet jacks in each of the 23 classrooms to achieve the same thing as wireless technology. That could have cost upward of $50,000, if electricians did the work.

With 239 middle schools statewide, that could have added $10 million or so to the overall laptop price tag.

In Guilford, doing it without wires cost the school only $4,000, said Crystal Priest, technology coordinator.

“We could never have wired this place. We couldn’t afford it,” Apple executive Bob Trikakis said as he surveyed the Auburn Middle School lunchroom as teachers received training on how to use their laptops.

Each Apple iBook to be assigned to seventh- and eighth-grade students has a built-in antenna that communicates with a base station, or “Airport,” 32 of which are installed in Auburn Middle School.

Each base station, which can accommodate the signals of dozens of laptops at a time, is hard-wired to a network already in place inside the school. The incoming internet line is connected to the system.

It’s not exactly a new technology. Several college and K-12 campuses have been doing the same thing since the late 1990s.

But the price has been falling since then, making it a far cheaper alternative to running wires into classrooms.

In West Virginia, the $24 million Robert C. Byrd High School opened in 1996 with the latest technology, which meant it was hard-wired for hundreds of computers. In all, there were 800 cable “drops” for computers, and the number has grown to 1,000 today.

Each drop certified by an installer costs $100 to $125, meaning up to $100,000 or more in wiring costs.

If the school had to do it over again, it would not have installed so many drops, but decisions were made on the best information at the time, said Chester Hall, technology director at the school in Clarksburg, W.Va.

“What we put in at the time was a type of technology that was the latest and the greatest,” Hall said.

At Auburn, and eight other demonstration schools, there are fewer wires and fewer costs thanks to wireless technology. But just as important, educators say, is the freedom for students to be mobile.

Gone are the days when students went to the computer lab. Now students take the computer lab with them, said Principal Kathi Cutler.

The laptops are stored in lockers equipped with power outlets. Students will collect them during their first class and carry them throughout the day, Cutler said. The laptops will be recharged during lunch.

During breaks, students can trade eMail messages or do personal work on their computers. Eventually, they may be allowed to take them home like a library book—but that decision is up to the individual school districts.

Next fall, the laptops will be distributed to all seventh-graders at public schools in Maine, and both seventh- and eighth-graders will have them in 2002. In all, 33,000 middle school students and 3,000 teachers will get them.

Geography teacher Steve Williams said the laptops will be a great asset. Currently, he has one old Macintosh in the classroom, and students have to gather around when he uses it in class.

In a fast-changing world, the 1990 textbook students use is already outdated but the internet is always current, he said.

But the impact of the technology goes far beyond geography and far beyond Auburn Middle School, Williams said.

“I’m a 30-year teacher, and this is going to put every kid on a level playing field. Now every kid is going to have the advantage of having a computer,” Williams said.

Links:

Maine Learning Technology Initiative
http://www.state.me.us/mlte

Auburn Middle School
http://www.auburnschl.edu/users/jrowe/Homepage

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com