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Case Study: How Wi-Fi eased the classroom crunch

Teachers need to take the Internet anywhere.

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Schools can be hesitant to use Wi-Fi, because they need to control the Internet access their children get - but for Heathland Comprehensive School in West London, blanket coverage was the best way to ease the pressure on the school's computer rooms.

In universities, adult pupils can be expected to provide their own laptops, and take care of themselves online, so it makes sense to cover the site with Wi-Fi. Secondary schools and below are less likely to go for full coverage, as their pupils require more supervision and can't be expected to provide hardware. School-level IT has generally been provided in special purpose computer rooms - but modern teaching increasingly requires Internet access, and this may have to change.

"Learning isn't centred completely on computers," says Adam Urch, network manager at Heathland, "but our school is very tight on rooms, with around 95 percent of the rooms in use." The school, in Hounslow, West London, has 1850 pupils aged 11 to 18, 150 teachers and 200 support staff.

In that situation, there is always someone in the computer room, and it's not possible to use it for a lesson which only needs access for ten minutes. In 2006, it was obvious that teachers and pupils need to be able to access the Internet from anywhere.

Is wireless best?

Wireless might seem to be the obvious answer, but Urch took some persuading. He was happy with the general performance of wireless, provided by some standalone Linksys Wi-Fi access points the school had bought on the high street, but these could only support about a dozen users at a time, and were awkward to use and unlikely to scale to larger coverage.

Also, as well as supporting the current building, any wireless LAN would have to expand easily into new buildings that the school has planned.

Urch looked at a solution from Proxim that would link up the existing Linksys access points, along with more, similar "fat" APs, but he didn't want to have to keep tweaking single APs: "I'm a network manager, and I'm in favour of central control," he says.

The choice with centralised controllers was between an Aruba centralised Wi-Fi switch, and a more expensive solution based on Meru's single-channel wireless LAN.

Heathland went for the more expensive option, to have a system that will expand to meet future demands, and because the single-channel architecture allows new access points to be added without any survey work.


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