This fall, every eighth-grader at Milwaukee's A.E. Burdick school will get a taste of learning Elroy Jetson-style.
Like something out of a space-age cartoon, the students -- using laptops they can tuck under their arms with their schoolbooks -- will be able to surf the Web while changing classes, send lecture notes from one computer to another and beam data from field science experiments through the school's brick walls.
That's thanks to new technology that networks classrooms together without a tangle of wires running through the building.
Not bad for a red-brick urban schoolhouse built in 1925, when the most advanced technology turned on the lights or cranked up the occasional film projector. Wireless technology offers such schools a chance to leapfrog into the future at much less cost than relying solely on conventional phone-line Internet connections.
"My goal is to shift us from a hard-wired school to a wireless school," says Daniel Hennessey, a teacher and technology coordinator at the K-8 school, which has been experimenting with wireless networking for two years. "Pulling wires through schools is extremely expensive. And we want the technology in the hands of as many students as possible."
Schools typically bring the Internet into their buildings via high-speed phone lines or cable pipes. Within their walls, they then rely on copper wires to bring dozens of student computers online.
Yet many poor schools -- rural or urban like Burdick -- are simply too old or too in need of repair to pull wires through every classroom. Their reality is a handful of computers with online connections in a lab, where children are shuttled in and out for as little as 20 minutes a day, one class at a time. Even though nearly two-in-three schools have some form of Internet access, kids often outnumber Web-capable computers by 30 to 1.
Wireless technology makes it possible to take a few incoming Internet connections and spread them throughout a school, so students can access them almost anywhere without a phone jack.
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