Wireless technologies and mobile computing have moved beyond the pilot and early-adoption stage and into mainstream use in United States schools, according to a study co-published by The Peak Group and The Heller Reports, a division of market research firm Quality Education Data.

The study polled a random sampling of public and private schools and districts representing about 3 percent of the total student population. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they are currently implementing some form of wireless networking in their schools.

Projected across the entire student population, the responses of those surveyed suggest the total market size for wireless technologies during the 2001-2002 school year was $495 million—and this figure is expected to jump to $776 million during the 2002-2003 school year, or roughly 14 percent of the total ed-tech market, according to the study.

The growth in wireless “has been fueled by several benefits that wireless technologies provide to the education environment [such as portability and flexibility of deployment], as well as falling prices, significant improvements in the technology, and increased applications,” the report said. “Maturing standards, feature-rich handheld devices, and education-specific applications are also driving the education market to seriously consider wireless technologies.”

Student access to wireless technologies is projected to more than triple in the next two years, and teacher access is expected to more than double, the study said. As many as 24 percent of respondents said student access would be in the 75 to 100 percent range for their schools or districts by the 2003-2004 school year, up from 7 percent during the 2001-2002 school year. Similarly, 21 percent of respondents said teacher access would be in the 75 to 100 percent range for their schools or districts by the 2003-2004 school year, up from 9 percent during the 2001-2002 school year.

Despite the surge in wireless, educators who responded to the survey said a variety of challenges still concern them regarding the technology. One of the biggest obstacles—mentioned by 25 percent of respondents—is understanding the many wireless platforms and standards that aren’t necessarily compatible with each other.

For example, educators who deploy wireless networks must choose between infrared, cellular, microwave, and radio frequency (RF) technologies, the report said. Among RF technologies, several established and emerging standards—including 802.11b, .11a, and .11g—force educators to make tough decisions about which types of products to buy.

Other obstacles to wireless deployment include cost and the security of data transmitted wirelessly, respondents said.

Rick Bauer, chief information officer for The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., said his school is using bi-mode 802.11a and 802.11b wireless technologies. Like respondents of the Peak Group study, Bauer told eSchool News his school’s use of wireless isn’t worry-free.

“Clearly there are benefits, but we would like for schools to deploy it more broadly,” Bauer said. “I think one of the concerns we have is that we don’t want to be the poster child for the ‘next big thing’ in a technology space that is so constantly changing. We need shelf lives for products and technology that are longer than the manufacturers are producing.”

Bauer also agreed that security remains a huge concern for schools.

“The vendors have, to my mind, been far more concerned about selling gear than making sure schools configure it well, leaving security to be ‘bolted on’ afterward,” he said. “My suggestion is for some of them to stop selling us products with these liabilities if they can’t step in and provide the training and management advice in the configuration and deployment phases.”

Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California, said wireless has the potential to give students more access to technology, as well as allow technology to be used in more ways and locations. But for districts with high-speed, hard-wired networks, the cost of transition might outweigh the value gained, he added.

“At this point I would rather spend more of my limited resources on computers, thereby reducing our user-to-computer ratio, [instead of] transitioning to a new technology of distribution,” Liebman said.

Links:

The Peak Group
http://www.peakgroup.net

The Heller Reports
http://www.hellerreports.com

The Hill School
http://www.thehill.org

Marysville Joint Unified School District
http://intergate.mjusd.k12.ca.us