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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

November 12, 2000, Sunday

Education Life Supplement
Now on Campus: Untethered Internet Access
By Eric Goldscheider

The next must-have technology for colleges that want to be at the forefront of information dispersal is wireless Internet access on campus, according to John Meerts, director of information technology services at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn.

Colleges and even some high schools are installing transceivers, or access points, that release laptop computers from any visible means of cabled support. Untethered, students can move around buildings or even wide swaths of the grounds without plugging in their computers.

In the newly renovated student union at Rensselaer Poly-technic Institute in Troy, N.Y., for instance, students can surf the Web or check e-mail from anywhere on the upper two levels of the three-story building.

At Wesleyan the approach is a bit different, at least it will be for the near term. Inspired by the AirPort -- a portable transceiver made by Apple Inc. that looks like a small flying saucer with flashing lights -- technicians in Mr. Meerts's department built what they call an "Apple cart," a wheeled cabinet with a dozen iMac laptops. A professor rolls the unit into a room, passes out the laptops and plugs the cart into an Ethernet jack. Presto, instant computer lab.

Suzanne O'Connell, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Wesleyan, likes the fact that she can create a computerized room when she needs it. For one class she might have students collect data from a Web site that offers color maps of temperature contours at different depths in different parts of the world's oceans. "It's much more dramatic than just handing the students a map and looking at it," Professor O'Connell said. "You really understand how the ocean temperature is constructed."

At the Rensselaer Union the permanent wireless environment is more a matter of convenience. And it serves as a showcase for things to come, said Oliver Holmes, director of campus planning and facilities design. But from the for-what-it's-worth department, "there's one little nook in the piano bar that doesn't have good reception," Mr. Holmes said, "and that's probably a good thing."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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