The Wireless Campus

Whether in the classroom, the residence halls, or somewhere between the library and the anatomy lab, students expect wireless access for their own devices or those supplied by their programs.

But the need to be constantly connected with WiFi offers other challenges besides where on campus access should be available (the trending answer being everywhere) — who should be allowed to use on-campus WiFi, how can schools retrofit older buildings not built with wireless in mind, and what happens when everyone wants to use their own device, are all questions facilities and IT departments are answering as the wireless campus becomes the new normal.

Matt Barber, network and systems manager at Morrisville State College, a college of the State University of New York in Morrisville, NY, recently described their campus transformations as wireless access moved from laptop-only to BYOD and beyond.

Wireless for Innovation
At Morrisville State College, we have been a wireless campus since 1998. Instead
of wiring a port per pillow in our residence halls, we chose to deploy wireless whenever possible. Beyond the cost savings in wiring and switches, having pervasive wireless allows for amazing flexibility for student learning. Students and faculty can work wherever is most comfortable for them, as opposed to wherever there is a network port. This has encouraged innovative study spaces and unique working classrooms.

In the last five years, pervasive campus wireless has become the most important part of our campus infrastructure. Today’s college students expect that wireless is available everywhere and that all of their devices will be able to use it. While the first 10 years of our wireless support has been aimed at laptops, the last five years have become all about handheld devices. In the spring of 2007, there were zero handheld devices connected to our campus wireless network. Today, in 2012, almost half of the devices connecting are not laptops. Smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles have skyrocketed in popularity, making it very common for students to have at least two different devices connecting to the network at the same time.

Wireless for Flexibility
Our dense deployment of 802.11n in 2007 was crucial for us to be able to handle this influx of devices. 802.11n is fast and robust enough to support huge numbers of devices while providing great performance.

Many college freshmen are coming from home and high schools that had wireless already, so providing at least an equivalent experience is very important to satisfying students’ expectations.

Usage data from our few residence halls that do have wired ports shows that an extremely small percentage of students use the wired ports at all. Only a few desktop computers and wired gaming consoles are ever
connected.

That data has been more than enough evidence to show that the cost of providing many wired ports in new buildings is not worth the investment. In our newest construction projects, we typically only provide wired ports where needed for access points, printers, desktop computers, and building systems. We cover the buildings with a dense deployment of wireless, as well as provide power outlets for students to charge devices. This allows for very flexible furniture setups, where tables and desks do not need to be tied to network ports on the walls. Classrooms and studio spaces can be rearranged as needed, allowing for better learning experiences. Traditional rows of desks can be changed into collaborative group clusters or circled around the room to make a discussion space. Many of our academic programs have an applied learning focus, so our classrooms are often labs, automotive garages, or equine stables.

The ability to carry a wireless device into these spaces to teach and learn makes our academic goals possible.

Wireless for Learning
Morrisville is also trying to figure out how else wireless devices may be beneficial in the classroom. In the fall of 2011, we started a pilot project using iPads in one of our Computer and Information Technology courses. Each student was provided an iPad and a copy of the course’s textbook as an e-textbook. We wanted to see how well that would work in practice, as well as find new ways to use the iPad integrated into the course. Having the 802.11n infrastructure in place made this pilot possible.

Without a robust wireless network in place, there is no way we could have supported such a large group of devices in a small area, all taking tests, streaming video, and downloading apps. The initial feedback from the students was very positive, and our pilot is continuing this semester.

Throughout the evolution and growth of our wireless network, our focus has always been on preparing our students for the workforce. As workers and businesses become more mobile and more flexible, we feel that our campus needs to follow suit. We want our wireless network to be as available and reliable as the electricity in our buildings, so that our students and faculty can focus on their work. We want our students to leave our campus ready to work, and supporting any possible technology they have is one of the best ways we can do that.

Matt Barber is network and systems manager at Morrisville State College. He can be reached at barbermj@morrisville.edu.

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