Laptop Learning

IT is increasingly becoming a focus area for the UAE’s educational institutes. Abu Dhabi Men’s College has proven an early adopter deploying a wireless local area network to drive its anytime, anywhere laptop initiative

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  March 10, 2002

Anywhere, anytime learning|~||~||~|Establishing a solid IT infrastructure and moving towards an Internet-driven economy and services model has been high priority within the UAE over the last 18 months. But government ministries, banks and private sector companies have not been alone in recognising the critical importance of IT. The UAE’s educational institutes have also placed IT firmly centre stage, both in terms of the student’s curriculum and also for enabling the delivery of anytime, anywhere learning.

“We have been doing a lot in the education sector, particularly with wireless local area networking. They [institutes] are deploying wireless infrastructures to support computer-aided learning within the campus environment,” says Walter Koenig, regional managing director, Middle East, North Africa and South Eastern Europe, Avaya.

Abu Dhabi Men’s College (ADMC) has been quick to recognise the benefits that wireless local area networks (WLANs) offer, and has embraced the technology to drive its laptop learning initiative within the college.

ADMC began deploying the WLAN at the beginning of last year, and the move has enabled the college to fulfil its aim of providing all of the college’s 1,300 students with a laptop of their own.

“All of the students, and soon all of the admin [staff] will be using it. They’ll all have wireless cards so they will all be connected,” says Robin Stark, head of educational development at ADMC.

ADMC has deployed 30 access points from Avaya around the college campus. While all students and laptop users are armed with wireless cards.

The access points enable students to study throughout the college, whether it is in classrooms, the learning resource centre (LRC) or even the canteen.

“We have access points running right throughout the college. They are actually in the corridors of the college, so they serve classrooms to the left and right,” explains Stark. “The foremost benefit is flexibility, students can now move around the college freely with their laptops. One period they might want to study in the classroom, the next period they might want to be working in a group in the LRC, and they can do that without any problem of linking up to the network,” he adds.

Laptop teaching also provides the teachers with greater flexibility when it comes to setting up classrooms for lectures, as rooms can easily be constructed for group work or individual learning.

||**||Flexible solution|~||~||~|Aside from providing both students and teachers with greater flexibility for learning, the WLAN has also removed the headache of hardwiring the whole college to accommodate the use of laptops.

“We have a network, but within the classroom there is not enough outlets for the students to hook up their laptops. If you’ve got 20 [students] in a classroom, you need 20 outlets, very few of the classrooms have 20 outlets,” explains the head of educational development.

“When introducing laptops you [need] the classrooms wired to the network. That creates a problem for a college that hasn’t really been purpose built for that, so it [WLAN] allowed us more flexibility in that regard,” explains Stark.

As more users have moved onto the network over the last year, and with plans to migrate 200 staff members to the network very soon, the WLAN has scaled simply and easily, with any coverage problems easily solved.

“We have added to it [WLAN] as we have gone along [and] where we have found blind spots, we’ve added more access points. That’s the beauty of it — where its not working you can just simply add another access point,” comments Stark.

ADMC is running a host of applications over the network for students, including a basic Office package, Encarta and CAD packages, as well as uploading any other packages or lecture notes that the students require for their courses.

“Whatever the students require in their programs we put it on the network and the students can access it from there,” says Stark. “The teachers have also developed a folder system for bringing material on to the network so the students can upload that in the classroom.”

The deployment of the WLAN has also facilitated the move towards online, anytime learning. As of September this year all the students at the college will have their own laptops, and they will take at least one course online.

To enhance the move to online learning, teachers at ADMC have been using a learning management system, WebCT to put more and more material online for students to access, whether they are attending college or working at home. Remote connectivity will enable students to take online courses from home in future.

“They can connect to the [college portal] from home, and in the future connect to online courses here as well,” explains Stark.

||**||Paper free environment|~||~||~|Aside from addressing online learning, the technically innovative college is also moving rapidly towards a paper free environment. ADMC has developed a student information system (SIS), which provides students with information pertaining to their courses, such as transcripts and timetables. Students can access the SIS both from their laptops and using the two touchscreens terminals within the college.

“We have the SIS, which has been developed in-house, and that really is automating everything and developing a portal for the college. Eventually most things will be automated, as I said we don’t have any notice boards now, so the students have to get all the information off the SIS, and that is going to be expanded,” comments ADMC’s head of educational development.

The development of the SIS portal will also provide students’ parents with greater access to information about their son’s performance, and record within the college.

“Parents can now go on the Internet and look up the attendance of their sons. There is going to be free information flow between parents, between students, [and] between sponsors,” adds Stark.

Although the issue of security has frequently been raised as one of the major concerns when it comes to deploying WLANs, ADMC has encountered no such problems in the time that it has been running its network.

Some of the college’s security is managed centrally by the Higher Colleges of Technology.

“Those sort of issues [security over the network] have been dealt with on a systems basis in the Higher Colleges, there are firewalls and so on, which provide the security,” explains Stark.

“We have software on the college servers [as well], which gives the security to students and student material,” he adds.

Stark admits the issue of security is a “developing area,” but he believes the college has put in place the most secure systems it can.

“You put in systems, which will give you as much security as you can probably have. But its never 100%, someone is going to find a way around it if they persist, you just have to hope that doesn’t happen,” he comments.

The college is currently gearing up for a move from 11 M/bits/sec to 52 M/bits/sec in the near future, and the increased bandwidth will consolidate the WLAN as an integral part of future online learning initiatives and enable the use of more bandwidth intensive applications.

“We have had no problems with the present 11 M/bits/sec… and with the upgrade that is coming down the line shortly to 52 M/bits/sec it is going to be even better. The technology is not out yet, but it will be shortly and we will upgrade when that occurs,” says Stark.

The upgrade will enable the college to run a large amount of traffic over the network and begin to use multimedia applications and video as part of course curriculums.
“52 m/bits/sec… will mean there is a huge bandwidth. I think if we introduce that then it will be the next step that will allow us to use wireless technology to run multimedia [applications],” he adds.

ADMC believes the move within the college to laptop learning and online teaching is in line with the wider initiatives that are happening within the UAE, and will provide the students with a greater range of skills to take into the workplace.

“A college like this should respond to what is happening in the wider community,” says Stark. “When they [students] graduate they will have IT skills, and that really is one of the purposes of having laptops. It is to make sure that the students look on using laptops and the Internet to gain information as part of something that they normally would do.”||**||

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