From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 10|No 4|January|2001

The Unwired Classroom:
Wireless Computers
Come of Age

by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

Note: This article is based on classroom visits by the author in several states during the past four months. Please visit the extensive gallery of photographs available to illustrate classroom use.

When computers first arrived in classrooms twenty years ago, they brought with them many headaches and challenges in the form of electrical cords, attachments, peripherals and other entanglements. Sometimes it was hard to find room for them. Sometimes they felt like intruders.

In recent years, with the rush to network schools, the amount of wiring and cabling escalated dramatically in ways that often hampered the use of the equipment and led to restrictions and inflexibility. Connections often dictated placement. Movement was rare.

In this elementary classroom, a hub is used to support a half dozen networked desktop computers spread throughout the room.


A New Age of Integrated Use?

With the arrival of high performance wireless notebook computers, we stand at the beginning of a promising new phase. The wireless notebook, especially when delivered to classrooms in sufficient quantities, is likely to bring about a welcome shift in attitude and use by classroom teachers.

After several decades of limited progress toward widespread integrated use (as evidenced by reports such as Technology Counts '991 and the work of Hank Becker2), wireless notebook computers may prove an ally in the effort to recruit the enthusiastic daily use of those teachers who have been hitherto reluctant, skeptical and late adopting when it comes to new technologies.

From Now On has argued since 1991 that good equipment will not suffice. Wireless laptops can help to eliminate many of the barriers, obstacles and inconveniences that have contributed to teacher reluctance in the past, but the focus of use must be on curriculum and learning as outlined in the November/December FNO article "First Things First."

If wireless notebooks are used for powerpointless activities, many teachers will wisely persist in resisting their use. We must offer standards-based learning experiences with these new tools if we wish to see broad-based use.

1. Technology Counts ’99. Education Week, 1999.

2. Becker, Henry. Internet Use by Teachers. 1999.

What are the advantages of wireless laptops?

Ease of Movement

Laptops allow for easy movement within a classroom or across a school.

Laptops also make possible the clustering and combining of enough units in each classroom to achieve critical mass - enough computers to do something worth doing.

Because desktop computers tended to be large and heavy, they required special furniture and were rarely moved around to where they might do the most good or be used most frequently.

Laptops are free to roam where ever students are learning. They require no special furniture. They can sit next to books and papers on a regular desk surface. They can fit on a lap. They can rest on a floor on a rug.

When one teacher is finished with a technology rich lesson and has little need for the laptops, they are simply loaded into a cart and rolled down the hall to someone who is ready and eager to begin a unit. No need to sit around idle while non computer tasks are taking place.

Ease of movement is likely to encourage more frequent daily use of each computer.

FNO began arguing for COWS (computers on wheels) and flotillas several years ago (see the March, 1998 issue, "The WIRED Classroom: Creating Technology Enhanced Student-Centered Learning Environments."

But the use of flotillas and laptop carts was always somewhat frustrating and difficult because it was hard to move things around and manage the network connections as long as the computers required cables for electricity and network connections. Those who asked for movement were often told it was not a practical option.

Sadly, until now, the preferred model in most classrooms has been a thin and even distribution of 3, 4 or 5 computers per classroom, often bolted down at the back of the room in a fixed location on computer tables. This model provides far less student access than a wireless laptop cart with 15 units and proves frustrating to teachers who need critical mass to launch significant projects such as writing as process or WebQuests.

The math is simple.

If 25 elementary students need to spend 8 hours each on their writing project, they require 200 hours of computer contact time. 5 computers provide 125 hours of contact time per week if used 5 hours each day during a five day week. It will take two weeks for these students to complete their one assignment if all five computers are used almost constantly.

But many teachers will not allow students to use computers all day long. While they are teaching math and other lessons, they may demand the full attention of the entire class. During this time, the computers sit idle.

In contrast, a laptop cart with 15 computers would provide the 200 hours in five mornings so two teachers could switch the cart from room to room and finish the writing in both classes that week. One teacher does writing in the morning. The other does writing in the afternoon. When they need to do other tasks, the computers leave the room and go next door where they will be used without pause for the rest of the day.

Thin distribution of resources has been a prime cause of the screensavers' disease - the lack of use by large numbers of teachers.

In many schools, computers were distributed to all classrooms regardless of the readiness or inclination of the receiving teachers to blend the new tools into daily lessons. Despite research by Becker and others indicating that use is heavily influenced by teachers' preferences, styles and readiness levels, all teachers and all classrooms in some buildings were treated equally. Ironically, the most equitable distribution of equipment to fixed locations may lead to a lack of real access and use. Becker (1999) found that constructivist teachers allowed almost three times as much use of computers as traditional teachers when they each had five computers in their rooms.

Frequent movement of equipment is likely to produce more true access and equity than thin distribution to fixed locations.
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Relaxed Fit

Wireless notebook computers fit right into the classroom with little fuss or bother.

Unlike their desktop cousins, wireless laptops are quite small. They have a tiny "footprint" compared to desktop units. Because they take up very little space, they can sit down just about anyplace in a regular classroom without any special provisions being made.

For examples, go to the photo gallery.

With many teachers feeling skeptical and reluctant about using new technologies, a relaxed fit is a strong selling point. Laptops do not shift the room around or bring with them new pieces of furniture or other encumbrances.
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Strategic Deployment

Wireless notebook computers make it easy to put computing power where it will do the most good and optimize both fettering of use and quality of purpose.

We should be applying new technologies to standards-based, curriculum-rich learning activities.

We should begin by asking what kinds of student learning we hope to promote. Those questions then logically lead to considerations of strategy and resources. Once we have a good sense of our purpose and the activities we plan to launch, we can begin to design a network that serves them well. Design should follow function.

In many schools, we see far too little consideration of movement. The prevailing strategy is to install and lock down all new computers. Yet this strategy is incredibly wasteful and inefficient.

Strategic Deployment involves a marriage of equipment and program. When the biology teacher is ready to launch a major study of the rain forest, we wheel a dozen networked computers into the classroom - enough resources to support genuine program integration.

Strategic Deployment takes us past tokenism and lip service to authentic engaged learning activities.

Moving computers where they are needed and wanted allows a school to cut its hardware budget in half while slowing down the purchasing and replacement cycle. Instead of installing 2-3 computers per classroom that will be used (maybe) 15% of the time, the district cuts its order for 2000 computers down to 1000, invests heavily in professional development and realizes 85% utilization by moving the equipment to where it will be welcomed (and used).

One week here. One week there. Movement spawns use!

(The above paragraphs were excerpted from Planning Good Change (McKenzie, 2001). For the May, 1999, FNO article, "Strategic Deployment of Hardware to Maximize Readiness Staff Use and Student Achievement " go to
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Wireless notebook computers can be used in many different ways to support a lesson, with form following function and purpose.

In trying to recruit the enthusiastic participation of all teachers regardless of style and preference, the more flexible the delivery system the better.

A cart of laptops can be deployed across a room in many different ways, thereby maximizing the fit between the teacher's style and the way the lesson proceeds.

One teacher might prefer cooperative learning and teaming. No problem. As many of the photographs in the gallery demonstrate, laptops lend themselves well to this type of lesson, as clusters of students gather around a single screen to consider and analyze data.

A second teacher wants students working solo but facing the front of the room in rows. No problem. The students sign out a laptop and sit where they usually sit.

The key to this element is that life goes on as it normally would. The laptops allow the teacher to execute the lesson without having to move furniture or modify the existing norms and procedures.

Delivered to the classroom in sufficient numbers for short periods of time, the laptops provide enough information power so that a great lesson can be launched without any heroic scheduling strategies. This stands in direct contrast to rooms with 3, 4 or 5 computers which require teachers to perform balancing acts as less than half the class can be on the computers at a time.

With desktop computers, the teacher must be flexible. The demands on the teacher to vary from normal routines is one of several complications that stand in the way of many teachers embracing new technologies.

The more comfortable and familiar we make the classroom experience with new technologies, the more likely we are to win enthusiastic use.
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Wireless notebook computers do not add mess, confusion and disorder to a classroom.

Finally we have computers that can sit on a desk with no more mess or bother than a textbook.

The typical desktop computer is not simply large and bulky. With its many cords and cables, it can be downright messy. Those wires and cables either sprawl all over the place taking up lots of space on the desktop or they can be neatly hidden away behind and below specialized furniture that usually ends up virtually bolted against a wall.

The desktop computer ended up taking up too much space - dedicated space. Instead of entering the classroom like one more tool for daily use, it demanded special treatment. Ironically, this special treatment usually meant setting the equipment apart from the rest of the room. In many classrooms, the computers are off to one side.

While it may seem like a small thing, the neatness and simplicity of a wireless laptop gives it a huge advantage. The less trouble they cause, the more welcome they are likely to be. Teachers with a low tolerance for disorder and chaos will appreciate the simplicity and clean lines of these computers.
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Low Profile

Wireless notebook computers sit low, keep a low profile and allow teachers to keep an eye on things.

Those who have tried working with students in computer labs or classrooms filled with desktop computers will find the low profile of notebook computers a welcome change.

Walking around the room, it is easy to see students as they work with notebook computers. The screens are low down, close to the desk or table on which they sit. They tend to be no higher than a student's chest.

In contrast to a room of desktop computers where student heads are concealed behind monitors that are set up high, the teacher can keep an eye on things, judging from facial expressions who is on task, who is confused and who needs some attention.

If the teacher wants to be able to see screens while students are working, it is easy to configure the room that way. To move desktop units around in that way would probably be too much trouble.

One major barrier to widespread use of computers has been various control and classroom management issues that arise when students make use of such equipment. The tall profile and size of the desktop units contributed to the challenge of maintaining good attention and behavior during such lessons. Laptops return visual control to teachers in ways that make the classroom feel like it usually feels.
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Wireless notebook computers are easy and comfortable to use.

The American Heritage Dictionary (Third Edition) defines "convenience" as follows:

The quality of being suitable to one's comfort, purposes or needs.

The more a new tool matches teachers' purposes and needs, the more likely they are to welcome the tool's arrival. The more comfortably the new tool fits into the daily routines, the physical space and the activities of the classroom, the more enthusiastically teachers will embrace the technology.

In one classroom visited in preparation for this article, I watched a teacher using laptop computers for the very first time. After a few minutes describing a research assignment, she told students to sign out a laptop and get started. In a matter of minutes, they were eagerly conducting the research.

For a first time use, the high level of comfort and productivity was very impressive. Students picked up a laptop, went back to their groups, opened the equipment and fired up their units without any trouble at all.

Because the equipment was so easy to use, the teacher could concentrate on teaching. No trouble-shooting required.

In this example, the laptops made the teacher's job easier. They delivered information power to the desktop with no more bother than it would take to pass out a set of print dictionaries or encyclopedias.
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Wireless notebook computers do not require much in the way of special effort or understanding.

Over the first two decades of their time in classrooms, computers have won a reputation for being a bit complicated and unreliable. The arrival of networks seemed to enhance that reputation in many schools and districts as the performance of a computer was now linked to the performance of the network.

"The network is down," signalled frustration and risk. Security concerns and risks added layers to desktops that seemed to keep users distant from the inner workings of the computers. IP addresses and TCP/IP added a level of mysticism to the Internet connected computer that could seem confounding to lay people.

Fortunately, we may be entering a new phase in districts that have passed through the early stages of networking. Network reliability has finally been achieved in many of these districts. Things generally work as you wish them to work. It is not such a big thing any more.

As described in thew previous section, a cart wheels into a room, students pull out laptops and fire them up without any difficulty.

While this improved level of performance makes the use of both desktop units and laptops more simple and appealing at the same time, the timing works especially well for wireless laptops, as they are arriving in classrooms at a time when a district can actually deliver "plug and play."

The chances for daily use are greatly enhanced by simplicity, comfort and reliability.
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Wireless notebook computers can be deployed across a classroom or down a hallway in seconds.

Time is major issue for teachers. Fortunately, laptops can be moved around to match teacher wishes in no time at all. A laptop cart is easily wheeled across the hallway at noon so two teachers can share the computers half a day each. There are no special connections, no TCP/IP changes, no fuss and no bother. It is fast, easy and comfortable.

Movement within the classroom is also fast.

Not so long ago I taught an afternoon professional development session at a laptop schools which still had laptops requiring cables for a network connection as well as a power supply. It took more than 15 minutes to plug all these laptops into the wall! I wondered how it felt when students arrived in class and passed through the same hurdles.

No longer a problem. The wireless notebook eliminates the "plug" part of "plug and play." The fuss, bother and set up time associated with those wires, cables and network connections has been removed as an issue. Teachers can move right to the lesson. Students can focus swiftly on the learning.
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Technical Issues

This article looks primarily at the implications of wireless laptops for classroom learning. There are many legitimate and important questions that schools and districts will want to explore about the more technical side of this issue, but those questions fall outside the scope of this article.

The technical and network support personnel with whom I spoke in San Diego and Ramapo Central were quite positive about their experiences with wireless laptops, though they conceded that the initial design and installation of wireless was a bit challenging. With time and experience, they have become comfortable and enthusiastic proponents, seeing wireless as a practical and helpful addition to their network capabilities.

Battery Life
Patrick Breen, Technology Coordinator for Ramapo Central (BreenP@RAMNET.K12.NY.US - Phone 845 357-7783 x 259), who began working with wireless in June of 2000, found early on that there were wide differences in the capacities of laptop batteries that had a profound impact on whether wireless laptops could remain wireless for very long. A battery life of less than 2 hours seriously impaired the effectiveness of the laptops and meant units might have to require wires for electricity.

Patrick also mentioned that RAM may have a major impact on performance as students will be doing the same demanding multi-tasking they have come to expect from desktop computers. Tempting as it might be to reduce the cost of laptops by going for a unit with less RAM, Patrick warns against this strategy.

Overlapping Zones
Patrick suggests dedicating machines to particular access points to avoid this problem. Channels of contiguous units must be assigned at quite different frequencies to avoid interference.

Throughput and Performance
Patrick reports that network speed on the wireless laptops is pretty much equivalent to the performance of desktop units.


Apple Computer
15-pack iBook wireless mobile lab. AirPort Base Station
Learn more about using mobile labs in education.
Download PDF file (requires Adobe Acrobat) iBook Mobile Wireless Lab

Compaq Wireless LAN

Microsoft's Anytime, Anywhere Learning Conferences -

NoteSys and Links to Other Sites Related to Notebook Computers in Schools

NetSchools -

Toshiba's Notebooks for Schools Program -


by Keith Lightbody - ICT Consultant

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie or by school personnel.

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