Vote set on new wireless network in Champaign schools

CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign school board is expected to vote Monday night on a proposal that would bring uniform wireless Internet access to all its buildings.

The school board will meet in open session at 6 p.m. at the Mellon Administrative Center, 703 S. New St., C.

The network, which would cost about $765,000, would be paid for with money from the second round of working-cash bonds the board approved issuing earlier this month.

Last year, when the district was proposing the working-cash bonds, officials estimated wireless technology would cost $2.3 million.

Dave Hohman, the district's director of educational technology, is recommending Aruba Networks.

He attributed the lower cost to the district choosing less-expensive equipment than it expected.

"It's better equipment, and it's cheaper," Hohman said. Plus, Carrie Busey Elementary and Booker T. Washington STEM Academy already have technology that's compatible with the network Hohman is proposing.

Hohman said adapting a wireless network will help the district get more use out of wireless devices it has already bought, including more than 900 netbooks being used in elementary schools and more than 500 iPads being used across the district.

They've been bought using educational technology grants, as well as through building budgets, department budgets, magnet school grant money, individual grant money and PTA donations, while some teachers bring their own to school.

"We have invested a ton in wireless devices," he said. Adapting the network will "really get the full use out of them."

It would also allow for equal access for students. Hohman said currently, some teachers bring their routers from home, so a student may have drastically different access depending on what teacher he or she has, even in the same building. The fact that some teachers are using personal devices also makes the current network hard to manage, he said.

"Right now, it's all over the place," he said.

The district started looking into Aruba a year ago, he said, and if the board approves it, places such as cafeterias and hallways — and even some outdoor spaces — will have wireless access and can therefore be used as learning spaces.

The district can easily define who has access to what on the district's network, which means students will have access to certain things, as will teachers and guests.

District staff will be able to easily monitor and control access when students try to find inappropriate content.

Hohman said new state standards for what students should learn include technology-based requirements, such as being able to publish information, collaborate and communicate online.

"These are skills kids need to start practicing," Hohman said.

Doug Brooks, director of networking services at Parkland College in Champaign, said Parkland switched to Aruba Networks about a year ago.

"It made our life so much easier," Brooks said, explaining that Parkland had been using a different vendor, but was having some problems, and needed to quickly add more access points for students bringing more devices that connect to Wi-Fi.

Brooks said he heard about Aruba from other state community colleges that used it and decided to look into it.

"Aruba just outshone the other vendors in every category," Brooks said. "We decided to go ahead and go with Aruba, and it was a magnificent change, in every way."

Brooks said the new network has better coverage at Parkland, and the cost was lower. Staff members are able to manage the network from one central location.

"The manageability of Aruba is so much easier," Brooks said, and Parkland staff members now spend much less time on problems. Before Parkland adopted Aruba, students and faculty indicated they had low satisfaction with Parkland's wireless Internet.

"Once we installed Aruba, the complaints just dropped to nothing," he said.

Aruba features a map that indicates weak spots in Parkland's coverage, and Brooks and other staff members can easily see where another access point is needed, and then create them.

"I can't stop raving about it," he said.

Hohman said if the district starts using Aruba, he expects Champaign staff members will also spend less time dealing with problems and will no longer have to go out to various buildings to troubleshoot problems.

"We can manage the whole network from a centralized location," he said.

He said Champaign Telephone Co., which will charge the district $250,000 to install the network, knows the district's buildings well.

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kevhead71 wrote on February 25, 2013 at 9:02 pm

That last round of Working Cash Fund Bonds increased my property tax bill about $25 per year.  Investment in Wi-Fi technology in this day and age does seem to make sense.  $250,000 to install the network, was that a competitive bid or a negotiated fee?  Public schools in Indiana have received federal grant dollars for wireless infrastructure.  Did CUSD 4 look into that option?