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Florida law school uses wireless technology

May 25, 1999
Web posted at: 7:51 a.m. EDT (1151 GMT)

by Neal Weinberg

Network World Fusion

FT. LAUDERDALE, FLA. (IDG) -- It's a spring morning, and first-year law student Yashmin Alexis is registering for her fall classes at Nova Southeastern University. No, she's not standing in a long line at the registrar's office. Rather, she's sitting in the school cafeteria entering her course preferences over the Internet from her laptop.

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Alexis isn't alone. At tables scattered across the cafeteria of the Shepard Broad Law Center, students have their faces buried in computer screens as they access a variety of applications over the law school's wireless LAN. In nearby classrooms, most students are furiously typing lecture notes. Students hanging out in the lounge balance portable computing devices on their laps, and one student climbing stairs is intently focusing on a laptop balanced in her palm.

Nova Southeastern may not match up with Harvard or Yale when it comes to history and prestige, but the law school is trying to make up for its lack of pedigree with a technology focus. Students must buy laptops outfitted with wireless adapters so they can connect to a wealth of Internet-based applications from anywhere on campus.

The National Jurist magazine recently named Nova Southeastern as the "Most Wired" law school in the country, a designation that quickly found its way into the school's marketing materials.

Dean Joseph Harbaugh has been leading the technology charge since he took over in 1994. "Lawyers are information managers for clients," he says. Lawyers need to understand how to use computer technology to gather information from multiple databases, to manage case files and even to bill their hours.

Harbaugh says Nova's emphasis on technology enhances the learning experience, makes a great recruiting tool and helps graduates win jobs. "It creates an atmosphere which sets us apart," adds Associate Dean Paul Joseph.

Of course, the move to create a wireless LAN in the law school building was not without its practical considerations. When Harbaugh came on board, the school had a 24-station computer lab for more than 800 students. Rather than pour money into new hardware to expand the computer lab, he decided to invest in a new network infrastructure to support increased computer use by students, faculty and administrators.

But the law school was built six years ago with solid concrete floors and a single data port per classroom, and it would have cost almost $600,000 to rewire the five-story building. Moreover, the school operates year-round and couldn't accept any downtime, according to Billie Jo Kaufman, law library director.

For about $80,000, the school went wireless. It installed 33 RangeLAN 2 series radio frequency transceivers, or access devices, in the drop ceilings above classrooms, the cafeteria and the library. Beginning in fall 1997, first-year students were required to buy a laptop and a $400 RangeLAN 2 wireless adapter. The $3,000 price tag is included in each student's tuition bill, so it can be part of a financial aid package.

There were skeptics at the school who doubted whether wireless technology would work properly, Kaufman says. But after a trial run with the equipment, which is made by Proxim and resold by Amp Corp., the school "jumped in and did it," she adds.

"I didn't think it would work as well as it did," says Frank Novak, director of network services. Downtime has been nonexistent, and the network has been able to accommodate an explosion in usage by students, faculty and administrators.

In fact, Novak says he had to take out about half of the transceivers because he found they were spaced too close together and were creating crosstalk. When he reduced the number of transceivers, performance actually improved.

As with any rollout of new technology, unexpected problems did crop up. For example, students tended to wait for the professor to start the class, then they all booted up at once, which blew out a couple transceivers, Kaufman says. Administrators resolved the issue by asking students to boot up as soon as they arrived in the classroom.

Overall, the wireless LAN has lived up to all expectations, according to Harbaugh. He adds that the college administration accepted the wireless plan on the condition that computers would become an integral part of the college experience - and have they ever.

J. Thomas Rogers, the school's legal technology manager, developed several applications that have proven popular with students, professors and administrators. These include:

  • Online registration. Each student goes to the law school's Web site, enters an ID and PIN number, and receives 60 imaginary points to bid on the courses he or she wants to take. Openings in each course go to the highest bidders.
  • Finals on floppies. Students have the option of taking their exams online. A proctor gives test takers a special floppy disk that locks down the rest of the computer when the exam program boots up.
  • Lecture review. Rogers and his team convert recorded lectures to RealAudio format and post them on the law school's Web site. Students access the recordings using special passwords.
  • Virtual study groups. Each class has its own Internet newsgroup, which allows students to collaborate and post documents whether they are at school or at home. For example, students are often required to take opposite sites of a particular case, and this allows both sides to post their arguments.
  • Access to grades. Students may enter their exam number and get their grades online, along with the grade distribution for the rest of the class. They can also view course syllabi and previous exams.
  • Online résumé bank. Employers post jobs, students post résumés (complete with photos, writing samples and video clips from mock trial presentations) and the software finds matches.
  • Recruitment outreach. The admissions office uses Microsoft's Net Meeting to conduct online chat sessions that let prospective students and their parents ask college administrators questions about admissions, financial aid and housing.

There are more ambitious plans on the drawing board. Rogers is testing digital subscriber line for remote access, and he is working to videotape lectures and make them available online.

Harbaugh is also interested in using videoconferencing to expand Nova Southeastern's faculty by allowing visiting professors to teach classes remotely.

For first-year student Alexis, the key benefits of Nova Southeastern's emphasis on technology are the convenience of being able to register for classes online and to communicate with professors via e-mail. She says she also likes the application training she's receiving, which she expects will serve her well after she graduates.

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