My typical commute to work is about 30 minutes. When I’m not listening to music in my car, I typically have a podcast from one of my two favorite IT creators: Security Now! and Clear to Send. As it so happens, I was listening to the latter on my commutes to and from work today.
Clear to Send is a podcast dedicated to wireless networking and has been around for a little over two years. It’s two creators are both wireless experts and hold CWNE (Certified Wireless Network Expert) certifications. The primary host, Rowell Dionicio, works at Stanford University as well as maintaining his own wireless professional services business in the Bay Area. His partner, François Vergès, runs a wireless consulting and service company. The contrast of higher education and corporate worlds highlight the different demands of both sectors and makes for a sensible discussion surrounding wireless networking. So, bottom line, when these two speak on wireless, I listen.
In any case, the podcast’s topic this week revolved around the increasing demand for wireless in the classroom as instructors develop learning methods that incorporate interactivity with students using their mobile devices. Simultaneously, wireless device use has skyrocketed, and one can expect each student to have at least two devices with them: typically, a laptop and mobile phone. Therefore, when you start cramming hundreds of students in a hall, you can assume that the device count in the area will be at least double the students in attendance.
Without proper wireless planning, all these devices compete for wireless airtime. Even in my environment, which I’m sure is quite smaller than a university like Stanford, I see the same trend of two devices per student. In specific spaces, it has honestly been a struggle to accommodate the number of devices as our infrastructure fails to scale with increasing demand. So, when an expert shares information on a topic that directly addresses issues I face daily, I’m thankful.
According to Rowell, information gathering must be done before wireless is installed or adjusted. Primarily, he advocates polling faculty to see what the actual wireless requirements are rather than guessing at what sorts of uses will take place in the classroom. Will students be utilizing mostly static content? Are there any multimedia components to the interactive lesson? How many students does the classroom seat? As wireless administrators, these are all questions we should ask before we plan, design, and install wireless access points.
Notably, Rowell places great emphasis on getting buy-in from faculty and other stakeholders. In his case, he had to get the building management on board with the new placements of access points for aesthetic reasons. After developing a plan for AP placement, he offered building management the optimal plan for coverage and capacity, while keeping some alternative plans handy in cases of contention. After explaining the need for wireless functionality, he was able to get buy-in from the building manager. However, if there were issues he mentioned that having alternative plans are a must, and if the alternative results in poorer performance he has stakeholders sign off on a document to show that they accept the consequences.
I will say that this level of communication is one of my weaknesses when it comes to wireless. On the one hand, I do not know who teaches when and where on campus. On the other hand, I haven’t received any requests to support anything beyond basic wireless connectivity in classrooms. We have also had the unfortunate fate of running a network with loads of technical debt. Technical debt that is only now being addressed with a full wired network refresh. So, in some ways, drastic improvements to our wireless infrastructure is on the back-burner until the wired project is completed.
With that said, this episode of the Clear the Send podcast gave me some food for thought when it comes to engaging with faculty and other stakeholders. Often, we in IT make unilateral decisions when it comes to infrastructure. This attitude might be in part due to users not expressing their pain points or desires, but I think it also comes from a reluctance to go out and survey those same users. Often, overworked or understaffed IT departments struggle to commit to outreach. However, if we ever hope to provide adequate wireless systems, we must get out of our basements, speak with users, and actively survey wireless as it is being used.
The rest of the podcast went over universal design principles and active monitoring following installations, which was all relevant and useful information. However, what resonated most with me was the call to be more proactive regarding communication. The demands of the highly connected classroom can only be addressed when we understand what instructors hope to achieve by incorporating technology into their curriculum and how they plan to execute their lessons in the classroom.
For anyone interested in wireless use in the classroom, I recommend you have a listen to this fantastic podcast.