Wired Versus Wireless, section 2 of 3

Glenn, how is it possible that wiring for hubs in key locations can cost twice as much as wiring all classrooms?

One wireless transmitting hub for every 1,500 to 2,000 square feet is required. For Allen High School, this resulted in 200 - 300 hubs. In this case, we had steel floor construction; hubs cannot transmit through steel floors. Each hub itself costs $985; add to that the cost of the card at the transmitting location, plus the cards in the laptops themselves. You also have to consider the power requirements to charge hundreds of laptops. The battery life before re-charging is about two hours. You need charging stations or mobile charging carts with a large capacity. If you plug 30 laptops into a typical classroom, you are definitely going to blow the circuit.
       You also need to consider the long-term costs. Desktop computers are often used for five years and longer in schools; when a hard drive breaks down, it can be replaced economically. Laptops typically cost twice as much as desktops for the equivalent features; the typical lifespan is 2 ˝ years, and if a hard drive breaks down, it’s not economical t replace it.
Geographical location and renovation versus new construction is also a key. The $150,000 costs Prakash described to wire two existing classrooms in NYC do not apply to suburban or rural areas. For new construction in the suburbs, the average cost to wire a classroom is a bout $3000; a wireless solution is about twice that.
Another factor to keep in mind is the global limitations of bandwidth. Wireless networks are undergoing explosive growth, and there is simply not enough bandwidth to accommodate it. As processor speeds and hard drive capacities have increased, so have file sizes, and this trend will continue. There is no technology on the horizon that will allow wireless networks to catch up with the bandwidth capabilities of a wired network.

Prakash and Glenn: can you summarize the differences in your approach to technology design for elementary, middle and high schools?

PN: For the first time [because of the technology available], we have the opportunity for teachers to do what they need to do – serve as facilitators, and motivators with the ability to tailor their service to the needs of individual children.  As to the precise manner in which computers will be integrated into the curriculum, that is the purview of educators.
       I am uncomfortable with the term technology design because design is not about technology but about education.  The idea is to get appropriate technology into the hands of children.   If you are asking at what age a child should have access to a computer on a full-time basis, I think all children from the fifth grade onwards should have their own portable computers.  In my opinion, high school kids should be using computers in class up to 50% of the time.  Teachers in laptop-equipped schools tell me that it is appropriate for elementary and middle school kids to use computers 25% - 30% of the time. Software support for classroom education continues to improve each day and that is another factor to consider when you talking about integrating technology into the curriculum.

"The popular practice of putting one, two or four PCs in a classroom is a dumb idea ... It takes away valuable space in already overcrowded classrooms and does nothing to integrate computers into the curriculum.”  Prakash Nair

GM: There are three tiers of computer competency: The first involves basic literacy - what is this thing? How do I get it to work? The second is more abstract - what do I need to accomplish? What tools (software) do I need to get this done? The third level is about composition - the ability to organize materials for a presentation.
       Basic literacy is important at the elementary level. Learning occurs primarily in a classroom with a single teacher. Teachers need the ability to present materials to the whole class and to individuals via a computer network.
       Middle and high school students require all three levels of competency, and should have access to a computer for about 1-˝ hours a day. For new construction, we often develop a computer commons area; 25 – 30 computers are located in a central area that serves an academic “house.” Classrooms surround the computer commons. Glass in the classroom walls allows teachers to keep an eye on the commons area.
       In high schools, subjects such as computer-aided design and video production are served by specialized computers located in labs.

Prakash and Glenn, there is a good deal of research and literature that questions the value of technology for learning, or at a minimum, advises a good deal of caution. Clifford Stoll writes: “No computer can teach what a walk through a pine forest feels like. Sensation has no substitute.” Please comment.

GM: The ability to manipulate information is the key to economic success in our society. Technology is actually increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots. It’s critical that our schools teach computer skills in order to level the playing field.

PN:  We need to find the best way to integrate technology into the curriculum – and I am not talking about the obsolete idea of computer labs.  Also, the popular practice of putting one, two or four PCs in a classroom is a dumb idea – period.  Please lose it.  It takes away valuable space in already overcrowded classrooms and does nothing to integrate computers into the curriculum. 
       From my own observation, I know that a computer in a child’s hands can become an instrument for learning – particularly in poor, urban areas where computers and the Internet can bring a wealth of information resources to children that they would otherwise not have access to.  For computers to be meaningfully integrated into the curriculum in schools, I am convinced that two criteria need to be satisfied:
       First, kids need to have access to laptops or some other portable computing device if not full time, then for some significant period of each school day.  I say portable device because the computer should be usable as a tool to enhance learning English, social studies, geography, math or even music.   It should be available when needed and out of the way when not needed – like a pencil.  A PC is simply not suitable in that context.
       Second, kids should be able to have structured access to the Internet, to supplement the work they do in class, in the library and at home. Wireless computing with laptops provides portability, flexibility and convenience that children working individually, in small groups and teams could never get from hard-wired PCs. 

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