WI FI At Dartmouth

Jon Gilbert for The New York TImes

Wired, wired everywhere: In the Baker-Berry Library, students can switch from books to laptops effortlessly

May 4, 2005
APPLICATIONS
At Dartmouth, Advanced Wi-Fi
By KATIE ZEZIMA

HANOVER, N.H.

IT’S not that he doesn’t like them or doubts his teaching ability, but Thomas H. Luxon, an English professor at Dartmouth College here, wants to see his students less next semester, hoping they will learn a lot more without having to look at him in a classroom.

Professor Luxon, who teaches courses on Shakespeare, wishes they will instead be watching scenes from "The Merchant of Venice" or "Macbeth" on their PC’s while sitting on a lawn, in a coffee shop or while relaxing in a dorm room. "That will be really cool," Professor Luxon said. "They could watch it on their own time and in their own place instead of having to go to the classroom or the media center. That means they could review it as often as they like, and they don’t have to see it just once."

Professor Luxon is able to release his students from the shackles of forced classroom movie viewing as a result of a major wireless convergence project that has taken Dartmouth’s phone, cable and wireless systems and condensed them into one Wi-Fi network. The project, officials say, keeps students on the forefront of wireless technology, and opens up endless educational and teaching opportunities while saving the college millions of dollars. The switch, which started in 2001 and will be complete with the wireless cable rollout this fall, includes the addition of 1,400 wireless access points and 24,000 wired ports across the campus of the 236-year-old college, the first in the country to completely integrate its communications systems into a wireless infrastructure.

"This really improves our ability to deliver types of information services that enhance teaching and learning," said Brad Noblet, Dartmouth’s director of technical services.

The first phase of the cable rollout will put the school’s cable television system online. After that, students, professors and anyone else on the overall network will be able to make up his or her own "channel," showing movie clips, video projects or presentations with cable-quality video.

The college’s public affairs office hopes to have its own channel as well. It could also be used by students to shop for classes during course selection because they could view a few minutes of a lecture or discussion on the network, and by professors to provide discussion materials before class. Dartmouth also hopes to put all its public lectures and forums on a cable network instead of on the sometimes gritty streaming video now available.

"We’re really at the front end of this," said Jeffrey L. Horrell, dean of the libraries and librarian of the college. "It’s not yet clear where the boundaries are."

The new network could even change how students write papers. They will not replace words or writing, but might enhance, say, a paper on "The Merchant of Venice" with a clip of the actor Patrick Stewart explaining the method behind his portrayal of the character Shylock, said Professor Luxon, who teaches a course on the play.

"Imagine writing a paper about one of these performances and including a video clip in your paper, like you would a quote," he said. "Now your paper isn’t on paper anymore, it’s on a Web site or a word file."

The convergence project is meant for educational purposes, but it is not bad for entertainment, either. Students will be able to catch the latest episode of MTV’s "Pimp My Ride" or any other television show anywhere on campus – including in class. While that is one more worry for professors who are now used to students staring at screens, they hope that the interaction and stimulation of a class will detract from the desire to tune in to "TRL" during sociology, Mr. Horrell said.

Students, many of whom did not know about the new service, are enthusiastic. Jean Cowgill, 19, a freshman, hopes to use the network to watch materials outside of class. But, Ms. Cowgill said, the cable access might backfire.

"That sounds amazing," she said. "But I don’t know how great it will be for my study habits."

Wireless data has been available here since 2001. Its success led the technology department to combine it with the college’s cable and data lines, which were antiquated and in need of replacement. Over the next few years, Dartmouth standardized its wireless protocol and increased its capacity by uniting two versions of wireless, 802.11b and 802.11g, on its central server, both of which can be retrieved anywhere off campus with wireless access and a Dartmouth computer or port.

It’s also cost effective. College officials said that Dartmouth saved $2.07 million by updating and condensing its current system instead of replacing it, and saves nearly $1 million annually on maintenance, cabling and salary costs.

Officials added that the system is secure because the video component is not installed on computers, but instead is downloaded every time it is used. But for right now, faculty and staff like Cynthia Pawlek, associate librarian of the college, are focused on how the network will change teaching and learning here.

"The possibilities are really endless," she said.

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