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For Gary Bernstein, director of Network and Communications Services (NCS), it was the ultimate payoff: seeing two students sitting cross-legged on the grass in the sun and working on a laptop — effortlessly using the new expanded wireless network he and his staff had just spent a month working tirelessly to set up.
Yet the new network is not just about improved access in more public spaces. Some 90 classrooms are now equipped with wireless access (with many more to come) and the potential benefits for teaching and learning are numerous.
Upgrading the network involved much more than just expanding the existing system. Bernstein explains that when the original system was set up in 2001 not many people were using wireless laptops. Over time, the network grew to 400 access points, becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Usage at each access point was growing too, meaning that simultaneous users had to share bandwidth, resulting in slow connections. "You'd think you'd just have to multiply the number of access points. But if there are too many APs in the same area, the signals interfere with each other." So NCS had to install a whole new system, one that provides "support for dense environments." Currently, the old and new systems are working side-by-side. The old network will eventually be phased out.
This means that even rooms deep within a building can now offer seamless access. Laura Winer, executive director of the Office of the Provost, admits the university was hesitant to offer wireless in classrooms. "There was some nervousness. Would it be disruptive? Would professors lose control?" Yet she points out that students are already able to text-message friends during class with their cell phones, "so we have to address these issues anyway."
Moreover, students had been pushing for the service; to this end, they recently voted to up their voluntary IT fee. Implementation of the new system was jointly financed by the students' IT fund and the university's central IT fund.
Véronique Bélanger, assistant dean (Internal Affairs) of the Faculty of Law, says her faculty had started looking into expanding its network on its own, before learning of the university's plan. "We wanted to open the use of online resources within the classroom," Bélanger explains.
"There are a lot of legal resources online: laws, cases, legal texts. If a professor is discussing the provisions of an act, for example, students can look it up directly." Wireless is now available in all main classrooms and common areas of the Faculty of Law building.
John Roston, director of Instructional Multimedia Services, adds that students can use wireless to collaborate and do group work. Or, if the professor refers to material covered in a previous class, students can connect to WebCT to look up the notes.
Cynthia Weston, director of Teaching and Learning Services, suggests cutting back on students' abuse of wireless in class by integrating laptops into the learning experience. "We each have a very personalized way of organizing our files. This can be a gateway to learner-centered teaching: how can we use the way students organize their information to help them build on their prior knowledge and construct new knowledge?"
Ultimately, the decision on how to use the new technology is up to each professor. "Technology is a tool," says Roston.
"We [IMS and TLS staff] help professors use that tool. But not everyone who is handed a chisel and a mallet becomes a sculptor."
For more information: www.mcgill.ca/ncs/products/network/wireless.