Going Wireless

Oct. 1, 2003
Educational institutions follow the trend toward wireless networks with their furnishings.

Now that wireless technology has proven itself indispensable to the business world, the academic community is moving to embrace it. The technological advancements of the past few years offer schools unparalleled flexibility in teaching, seamless facility management and faster communication. According to the Campus Computing Survey 2002, distributed by The Campus Computing Process, two-thirds (67.9 percent) of the surveyed campuses reported some form of wireless network on campuses as of fall 2002. This number is up from 50.6 percent in 2001, and 29.6 percent in 2000.

However, fully integrating this technology onto a campus doesn't happen overnight. According to the survey, only 10 percent of the survey respondents with wireless networks on campus indicated that full campus wireless networks were up and running at their institutions. Additionally, only 34.7 percent of all campuses without an existing wireless network have a strategic plan for establishing one.

As this technology evolves and permeates the learning environment, architects, designers and manufacturers of furnishings are facing two important questions: How will the integration of seamless technology into campuses evolve over the next few years as technology reaches new heights? How big a role should both the campus' existing architecture and the school's current furnishings play in supporting such cutting-edge technology?

A learning tool

It's no secret that wireless technology is changing the learning environment and is becoming an integral part of schools and campuses. For instance, the technology already exists for students' homework assignments to be beamed directly from their individual personal digital assistants (PDAs) into their instructors' PDA or computer as the students enter the classroom. For years, some instructors have relied on automatic electronic grading devices for evaluating multiple-choice exams. Now, instructors at colleges and universities are beginning to employ more advanced technology to help grade essays and short-answer tests.

Also, students and faculty are able to roam a campus and connect to the Internet or the campus intranet from almost anywhere. This allows easy access to online assignments, syllabi or class websites. Students can collaborate on homework assignments and submit papers to professors without being in the same building or connected by cabling.

Merging technology and furniture

When wireless technology is to be used, facility managers, specifiers and designers need to consider the furnishings that will support it. All current and future wireless technologies demand ample access to power connectivity to support the requirements of the specific user, individual hardware and the network itself. Security concerns also need to be addressed; schools need to safeguard their networks against hackers, while providing easy access for students, faculty and staff.

Specifiers need to determine if furnishings can be wired to provide power when wireless technologies are used, and both power and data connections for when it is not. They need to consider how easy it is to install the furniture with these provisions, and later for the user to access the power and data for “on-demand” connection to the hardware. They will want movable walls that easily can accommodate traditional wired or wireless technologies, and that can provide for easy changing or updating of the infrastructure. They will want tables that have a cable trough to conceal wires and cables, yet have easy-access modules that provide power and data access on the table surface for modern technologies such as PDAs and laptops. They will want ultimate connectivity and control for teachers and instructors, and require that lecterns and teachers' stations have more advanced capabilities than ever before.

One of the most important ways that furnishings can support the proliferation of wireless technologies is through providing a sufficient number of outlets for power management. A good rule of thumb for a classroom is to specify at least one power infeed per every 24 students and one worksurface-mounted power source for each student. That translates to about four to six power infeeds/drops in a 50-foot by 50-foot room. Furthermore, a campus should have an adequate number of transreceivers (the actual unit that sends and receives data). Although there is no set limit to the number of Internet protocol (IP) addresses that can communicate with a transreceiver at one time, too many people trying to access the network at once can clog the bandwidth. Depending on the specific situation, one transreceiver easily can handle 15 to 25 IP addresses (logged on computers) accessing the network at the same time. Therefore, a lecture room accommodating 200 students should have nine power infeeds, 200 available worksurface outlets, and from eight to 13 transreceivers (depending on the data content being transmitted).

Perhaps the most crucial element in the creation of a wireless network is security. New technologies are making it easier for people to gain access to information, and schools routinely house personal information such as social security numbers, tax and contact information on their networks. So how can facility managers ensure that only authorized individuals access the network?

One way is to consider specifying one of many new or custom-designed software systems. Often, software manufacturers are contracted to personalize technology for their clients, in order to safeguard sensitive information. If this option isn't viable, consider making access to specific information on the network available only through secure data jacks instead of the wireless network. Users can plug into the jack, download information and save it to their local drive. The information then is retrieved and made available off-line. By pursuing this option, hackers would have to plug into an applicable data-jack physically before trying to find a way into the network. More than likely this would draw more attention than hacking in via a wireless method from across the street.

No limits

The latest technology can be archaic in a matter of months, so future technologies should be at the forefront of every planner's mind. The trend toward wireless technologies began with the programmable calculators of a decade ago. Soon, the megahertz capabilities of today's wireless handheld and laptop devices will give way to gigahertz, and buildings need to be wired with an infrastructure capable of supporting this change. These technologies will house memories that are found today only on desktop computers, and networks need to be able to handle the increased demand.

But facility managers also need to keep in mind that specifying furnishings with the capability of supporting the technology of tomorrow is an absolute necessity. Informed choices ultimately will save the facility money and employee work time.

Eventually, technology and furniture design will merge seamlessly. Schools should choose products that can support future technological revolutions.

Swanquist is vice president of institutional markets for KI, Green Bay, Wis. Garza is a senior consultant with Polysonics Corp., an acoustical, telecommunications, theater and audiovisual design consulting firm with offices in Washington, D.C. and Maryland.


  • 67.9

    Percentage of surveyed campuses that reported some form of wireless network on campus, as of fall 2002.

  • 50.6, 29.6

    Percentage of surveyed campuses that reported some form of wireless network on campus, as of 2001 and 2000, respectively.

  • 10

    Percentage of survey respondents with full campus wireless networks that were up and running, as of fall 2002.

  • 34.7

    Percentage of all campuses without an existing wireless network that have a strategic plan for establishing one.

Source: Campus Computing Survey, 2002, distributed by The Campus Computing Process.

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