Look, no wires

7th January 2000 at 00:00
If you believe the predictions, in five years everyone will have a cheap wireless device that will look like a mobile phone but will let users surf the Net, watch video and, with voice recognition capability, use it for writing documents and sending email.

Such a development would render many of the debates about information and communications technology in schools obsolete, but until it happens there is a need to improve access to local networks and the Internet for students at school. A growing number of organisations are turning to wireless technology in its various forms to solve these problems.

Cornwallis School in Maidstone, Kent, is believed to be the first in Britain to install a wireless network that covers the entire site rather than just a handful of classrooms. As a participant in Microsoft's Anywhere Anytime Learning initiative, the technology college has more than 180 laptops for student use. The technology college has also made good progress at integrating ICT into its curriculum, says Paul Herd, sales and marketing director of Online Computers, which installed the network in late October.

The school is situated in two main buildings on a large site, but its 17 "bridges" ensure that the network can be accessed from anywhere. Lesley Williams, Cornwallis's technical services manager, says this means students can use their laptops in the gym, on the sportsfield or while eating lunch in the grounds.

She says the network is operating very well and will be easy to expand as more laptops are added. It cost about pound;35,000, including cards for the laptops and cabling to link together all the bridges, which act like mobile phone base stations.

Herd says a cable-based network would have cost about the same amount but lacked the flexibility that wireless offers. He is confident that more schools will emulate Cornwallis's lead as more schools move away from computer labs. "Wireless is crucial to giving them the full flexibility that laptops offer," he says.

Meanwhile, seven schools around Kidlington in Oxfordshire are being linked and given Internet access through a wireless Wide Area Network (WAN). The Konnect21 project is the result of a drive by Kidlington Voice, an organisation made up of representatives from local businesses, community organisations and public bodies, that aims to improve the quality of life for residents.

Chris Pack, a founding member and former deputy head at Gosford Hill High School in Kidlington, says one of the organisation's aims is to network the local community. Members realised that technology could aid this process and that a wireless system could also make the job easier.

He explains that Konnect21 wants to create a connected learning community in Kidlington starting with the schools, but the public will be able to access it eventually. Parents will have a dedicated area on the intranet and businesses will be invited to become members. The project is also bidding to become a UFI learning centre hub.

The focus of the venture is Pack's old school, Gosford Hill, where the main aerial is located. It sends and receives signals from antennas at six primary schools at 3 megabytes - much faster than ISDN2.

The cost of the network, servers and related equipment was in the region of pound;50,000, but most of that has been met by Oxford-based Community Internet and RM, headquartered in nearby Abingdon. Pack adds that it was cheaper than cabling, which may not even have been possible given the two to three-mile distances between some of the primaries. "The investment has been quite heavy but it's certainly going to pay off over the years," he says. The other benefit for schools is the absence of call charges for accessing the Net.

Video-conferencing will also be possible through the network. The hope is that both pupils and teachers will use it to collaborate on projects, Pack says.

Konnect21 goes live this month an has the backing of Michael Wills, the learning and technology minister, who describes it as an innovative project that will enhance the learning experience for the schools involved.

Another benefit of wireless technology lies in ensuring schools do not miss out on the digital revolution just because telephone companies deem it uneconomic to lay high-speed cables past their doors. Lancashire is hoping to win funding to provide wireless broadband Internet access to all its schools and those in neighbouring Cumbria, which shares a small population scattered across a large rural area, says Marion Lloyd, Lancashire LEA's ICT group leader.

The plan would build on the existing wireless arrangements in Lancaster, where about 14 schools that lie within line-of-sight to a mast at Lancaster University can get high-speed Net access. A further 18 should now be linked to the system.

Initial installation costs per school are in the region of pound;6,000, but that could rise significantly if a mast has to be installed. Lloyd says the need to obtain planning permission for these is another obstacle to overcome, as is how to bring in more distant schools near the Pennines. However, finding a solution is worthwhile, as annual running costs are only about pound;500 per school - even less than an ISDN line, let alone the pound;15,000 a leased line can cost.

Cumbria is also considering satellite for its rural schools, but some regard it as a halfway house as there is only high-speed downloading, with requests for websites going down a telephone line. This is how Espresso's and Space Academy's satellite delivery systems for schools operate, for example.

Gorringe Park Middle School in Merton, south London, is the fortunate guinea pig for a trial by Edex, its Internet service provider, of a satellite system that has high-speed links in both directions. Alan Coode, the head teacher, says that even before the dish was correctly aligned he downloaded a feature film - 20 megabytes of information - in two and a half minutes. Properly configured, that time could be cut to just 30 seconds, meaning websites will be on students' screen almost before they finish typing the address. The two-metre wide dish was installed late last year after Coode complained to Edex about slow Internet access on the school's 64k ISDN line for its network of 50 computers.

Another company using satellite in education is London-based Espresso Productions. It delivers very high-quality content, including video, multimedia and web pages, to schools via digital satellite. Lewis Bronze, the editorial director, says satellite is the cheapest way to deliver this sort of broadband content, but it can also go down a high-speed connection.

About 70 schools have signed up for the service, which costs pound;6.75 per pupil per year for a minimum of 80, or pound;4.50 a year for a two-year contract. Schools in Oxfordshire and Stoke are participating in an independent evaluation being led by Peter Maher from the Learning Circuit, a joint venture between the Roehampton Institute, London and AZTEC, the Training and Enterprise Council for south-west London.

Bronze says Espresso's content is being well received by schools and the company expects to announce contracts with a number of large education authorities at BETT.

Connecting to the Internet without wires may seem futuristic, but it is no longer the preserve of businesses. As the technology gives content to schools more quickly and makes learning more flexible, it is likely to make cables more and more a symbol of the past.

Edex Stand: D120E120www.edex.netEspresso Stand: M87T130www.espresso.co.ukLearning Circuit Stand: H61www.learning-circuit.co.ukRM Stand: D50E50www.rm.comCornwallis School www.cornwallis.kent.sch.ukOnline Computers www.olc.co.ukCommunity Internet www.community.net.ukSpace Academy www.space-academy.co.ukGorringe Park School www.gorringepark.merton.sch.uk

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