Wireless for the Next Generation

GUEST COLUMN | by Sean O’Malley

As teaching and learning evolves, university technologists need to evolve their infrastructure to keep pace with those changes. Unlike corporate environments where standards can be tightly controlled, university campuses are, by and large, a “bring your own technology” environment. While such diversity tends to foster innovation, it also can stretch infrastructure to its limits.

Consider Ohio University’s experience with wireless networking. OHIO has offered edge to edge wireless coverage for nearly a decade and a half, but the way that coverage is used, perceived, and leveraged has changed considerably in that time.

“When we first rolled out full coverage in 1998, most universities were focused on hotspots,” said Rick Manderick, Director of Infrastructure for OHIO’s Office of Information Technology (OIT). “Mobility was perceived as mostly for power users, and wireless was treated as a gadget rather than as a core technology.  We saw things differently.”

OHIO’s decision to invest in wireless networking ultimately paid off.  By the early 2000s, desktop computers had fallen out of favor, WiFi adapters went from being pricy add-ons to standard equipment on laptops, and the mobile revolution was well under way. “For a number of years, our 100 percent wireless coverage was a real selling point,” said Manderick.  “The question on everyone’s mind was how long the original design would hold up.”

The answer came in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone. Suddenly smart phones weren’t just for road warrior executives any more, and having a WiFi device in your pocket became the norm.

By 2008, OHIO’s multi-vendor, captive portal wireless network was reaching its limit.  With cell providers moving away from unlimited data plans and an explosion in the number of consumer devices with built in WiFi, users began to depend more heavily on the university’s wireless network. Logins from popular locations like Baker University Center, Alden Library, and the university’s residence halls began to exceed capacity, and mobile device owners chafed at the need to log into the wireless network every time their device would wake up.

“We saw a real explosion in the number of devices, and wireless went from a convenience to a lifeline,” said OIT Chief Information Officer Brice Bible.

Researchers noticed the shift as well. OHIO faculty Teresa Franklin, Jeffrey Anderson, and Gene Geist,  and graduate students Yanyan Sun and Nick Yinger partnered with OIT to analyze student use of tablets both in and out of the classroom. “We chose to leave access wide open for the participants,” Anderson said. “They could download whatever they wanted and use the tablet as they saw fit.” Not surprisingly, nearly every participant identified easy access to a robust wireless network as a top priority.

OHIO wireless usage now has grown to approximately two devices per student and exceeds two for faculty and staff. The university network needs to be able to handle over 32,000 simultaneous connections. To cope with that sort of density, the OHIO redesigned its wireless network from the ground up. Instead of a multi-vendor environment, OHIO went with an Aruba wireless LAN solution. Once completed, the redesign will include 4,500 Aruba AP-105, AP-124 and AP-135 access points and 16 Aruba M3 controllers.

The upgrade already has drawn praise from students, faculty, and staff. “The day we brought the new wireless system online in the library, our users were ecstatic,” Bible said. “At this point we’re nearly done with the residence halls, and the excitement is palpable.”

Redesigning a wireless network to provide seamless, high density coverage is about more than just keeping up with consumer demand. Increasingly, academic technologies and wireless technologies are one and the same. Professors use mobile devices in their classrooms as teaching tools and assume that students will use personal devices to engage with content on the fly. For blended classes, where participants interact both in person and online with instructors and classmates, reliable access is essential.  Even the traditional classroom can benefit from improved wireless access. As more and more professors adopt a flipped classroom approach where students watch recorded lectures outside of class and then spend class hours applying those concepts, wireless devices are the preferred mode for content delivery.

When asked what considerations will be a factor in coming years, Bible points to three concepts: diversity, density, and delivery. University networks are heterogeneous environments and will continue to be that way for the foreseeable future. Students habituated to using consumer devices in the home expect to connect those same devices on campus with a minimum of fuss. They also expect to interact with their schools the same way they do with businesses – online, via a multitude of platforms.

Combined with this pressure to support multiple platforms, Bible also sees device counts continuing to increase, as more consumer devices integrate wireless connectivity. “For the past several years, we have seen increases in device density after the holidays.  We are expecting the same this year.”

Delivering acceptable service levels in the face of rising demand and diversity requires careful attention to scalability. Bible sees this as both challenge and opportunity.  “Universities should treat the proliferation of personal mobile devices as an educational asset. The better connected your students are, the more options you have to facilitate learning.”


Sean O’Malley is IT Communications Manager at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Write to: omalley@ohio.edu


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