The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has introduced a new report intended to help school technology leaders evaluate the potential for wireless connectivity in the classroom.

The 23-page document, entitled “A Guide to Wireless LANs in K-12 Schools,” serves as a road map for educators as they weigh both the hurdles and potential advantages associated with wireless technology.

“Wireless local area networks (WLANs) have been around for some time, but only recently have the costs and benefits met at the magical point that propels a new technology into the mainstream,” the report says. “New standards, faster speeds, and decreasing costs are combining to make wireless networking an ever-more appealing solution for school campus connectivity needs.”

Even as soaring budget deficits have forced schools across the country to scale back efforts to upgrade computers and outdated software applications, many of these same budgetary constraints have been driving the widespread adoption of wireless connectivity in schools. Unlike hard-wired infrastructures, adopters say, wireless devices are available without the financial headaches that come with having to tear down walls and renovate old school buildings for improved online access.

“Eliminating the need to wire and rewire–especially in those facilities with hard-to-access walls–can result in a tremendous financial savings for schools,” the report notes.

And in an era when the phrase “total cost of ownership” (TCO) is becoming a mantra among educators, any innovation that enables schools to save money in the long term is worth considering. The report provides a chart to help schools assess their wireless TCO.

The technology can also open doors for mobility, flexibility, and expandability–the likes of which traditional wire-bound machines have not offered before.

“Today, teachers and students walk with laptops under their arms the way we used to walk with books under our arms,” said Gene Broderson, director of education for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a co-manager of the report committee.

In terms of mobility, the report points out that a WLAN enables students and educators to roam anywhere on campus, while still staying connected. This capability has taken on new significance with the proliferation of laptop computers and other one-to-one computing devices, including handhelds and Tablet PCs, in schools.

“With a WLAN, users of these mobile devices can upload or download tools and assignments from the school network or access the internet without needing to stop, locate an Ethernet connection, and plug in,” the report says.

Flexibility is another bonus. According the report, some educators are tapping wireless as a means to install technology that can change with the evolving needs of their schools.

“Many districts deal annually with expansions, renovations, portable classroom structures, and other physical changes to their facilities,” the report says. “Wireless technology can play a significant role by extending the wired infrastructure to allow devices, people, and entire classrooms to be moved without having to add or re-run cable.”

Wireless networks also are expandable, the report said–meaning they allow schools to build out their networks without having to sacrifice investments already sunk into hard-wired systems.

Advantages aside, CoSN says the report is not intended to advocate for the technology. Instead, its authors hope it will help stakeholders decide when and where to jump into wireless–if at all.

Unfortunately, there is no one clear answer for any school. According to the report, educators need to take into account a number of variables when determining whether wireless will work for them.

To make this decision, school technology leaders first must assess the needs and capabilities of their given institutions. Because wireless access points and mobile devices vary greatly in price, you should consider a variety of factors, the report says, including manageability, or how much control you want to exercise over your networks; support, or whether service and technical support are available with the technology; dependability and performance, or whether the technology will stand the test of time; and compatibility–whether the wireless devices you’ve selected will fit in with existing technology.

For schools, the options have grown with the approval of new high-speed wireless standards. To date, there are three standards schools can choose from–802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g–with a fourth–802.11n–still vying for approval.

While 802.11b has proven to be the de facto standard in schools up to this point, educators also are experimenting with 802.11a, which is more powerful than the “b” standard but only works at half the range. Another option is the recently approved 802.11g standard, which is backwards-compatible with applications running on the “b” platform. While 802.11g is up to five times faster than its “b” counterpart, schools so far have been slow to adopt it–mainly because the technologies have just begun ramping out, the report said.

Another concern is security. Besides securing equipment from tampering and theft–a natural concern given the portability of laptops and mobile access points–school leaders need to think about securing their district’s data and infrastructure from hackers and unauthorized use.

“Wireless [technology] is inherently less secure than a wired network,” said Darrell Walery, director of technology for Consolidated High School District 230 in Illinois and a co-manger of the report.

So far, a number of schools that have implemented wireless networks have found it difficult to protect their systems from mischievous intruders looking to get a free ride from the open-air service. Though many schools have sought to close down these so-called “hot spots,” which allow unregistered users to piggy-back on their networks, the problem still exists.

That said, the report also offers several suggestions to beef up wireless security, from complex encryption keys and network codes to such simple and common-sense preventive measures as password-protected WLANs.

“Wireless is not the best solution in every situation,” the report acknowledges. “Wired networks are still faster than even the best wireless options available today, making them better for multimedia and video conferencing. When cable already has been run and mobility is an issue, you may want to stick with–and add on to–your existing wired network.”

Links:

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

Emerging Technology Report: A Guide to Wireless LANs in K-12 Schools
http://www.cosn.org/emerging_technologies/wireless.html