Having a strong network infrastructure to support mobile devices is essential.
Without a wireless network that can allow devices to connect to the Internet quickly and easily, attempts to incorporate mobile devices into classrooms will be fruitless, experts say. A mobile-learning initiative cannot succeed without the support of teachers, and teachers won’t use the devices if the technical support needed to make the lesson run smoothly isn’t available, says Billie J. McConnell, a professor of teacher education at Abilene Christian University in Texas, which provides iPod touches or iPhones to incoming teacher education students.
“Getting K-12 schools to think through their infrastructure and access is very important to moving their teachers forward,” says McConnell. Likewise, having a strong network infrastructure is key to getting students on board with educational uses of mobile devices.
Schools present distinctive challenges when building a strong wireless network.
Very few other organizations in the world pack people as densely into buildings as schools do, says Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan. That situation makes it difficult to provide the bandwidth necessary for complete wireless coverage.
High-density classrooms and gathering areas like gymnasiums can be particularly challenging for schools, says George Saltsman, the director of technology for the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning at Abilene Christian.
“You can’t underestimate how important the wireless network is,” he says. In particular, when using mobile devices such as cellphones, teachers and students expect Internet access to be immediate, even more so than when they use wireless laptops, says Saltsman.
“Students have different expectations” with smartphones, he says. “If it takes 10 seconds to find a network,” students give up.
In addition, unlike with a laptop, which students may turn on at the beginning of class and turn off when the lesson is over, with smartphones like the iPhone, students and teachers get on and off the network repeatedly in a short period of time, says Saltsman. That can cause even more strain on the network.
Building a wireless network is expensive.
Because of the number of people on the network at a school, as well as the importance of having access to high-speed Internet at all times during the school day, schools cannot skimp on the equipment needed to set up the network infrastructure, says Soloway. Schools need professional-grade access points and plenty of bandwidth to provide teachers and students with the coverage that they need to integrate mobile devices successfully, he says.
According to Soloway, schools should expect to pay anywhere from $75,000 to $125,000 per building for wireless infrastructure.
The network needs to be monitored, maintained, and frequently upgraded.
Building a wireless network is not just a one-time investment.
Schools should expect to hire someone—or redeploy a staff member—to maintain the network, troubleshoot problems, and fix glitches when they occur. Without someone who can provide technical support, teachers are likely to become frustrated with the mobile devices and stop relying on them for their lessons.
“Having that technical support ... is critical to ensuring the success of mobile initiatives,” says Thomas J. Phillips, the superintendent of the Watkins Glen Central School District in New York, which has launched a pilot project with smartphones for 5th and 7th graders.
In addition, a network needs to be updated every few years to keep up with changes in technology, such as improved wireless-network protocols and increasing use of higher bandwidth applications.
Relying on the wireless networks of telecommunications companies can help.
Investing in cellular technologies like smartphones can put less strain on schools’ wireless networks because they make use of larger networks provided by telecommunications companies like Verizon, Sprint, or AT&T, says Cathleen A. Norris, a professor of learning technologies at the University of North Texas and the chief education architect for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company GoKnow, which provides educational technology, software, and curricula to K-12 schools.
“[Setting up a wireless infrastructure] is a lot of upfront money, and the schools that are going cellular are just outsourcing all of that,” says Norris. Schools will, however, need to foot the cost of the bill for phone service, which can range from $30 to $50 per phone per month. For 500 students in a nine-month school year, that adds up to $135,000 to $225,000.