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Reimagining Education: Making Your Network Work for eLearning

Dahwood Ahmed, Regional Director UK&I, Extreme Networks
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The first lockdown saw most educational institutions transition to a virtual classroom overnight and the impact continued to reverberate. In fact, UNESCO reports that one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, close to half the world’s students were still being affected by partial or full school closures.

But one thing the pandemic has demonstrated is that the walls of a classroom are no longer a barrier to education thanks to the power of eLearning, a learning system based on formalised teaching but with the help of electronic resources. In fact, eLearning itself is no longer seen as a bonus or an add-on, but a lifeline for students, teachers and administrators.

The education sector must take this moment to view eLearning as more than a short-term, pandemic-related solution, and instead a long-term system that needs our long-term attention. With it, there’s an opportunity to reimagine education as we know it, as it can provide students with a way to learn anytime, and anywhere, regardless of future interruption.

But before schools can implement and ensure uninterrupted access to eLearning, they must have the right digital infrastructure in place to begin with. But how can this be achieved?

Achieving infinitely distributed connectivity for all students

Before educational institutions can consider what their individual digital infrastructures should look like, and which network solutions are appropriate, they must first evaluate the needs of their students. This is vital as equitable access to electronic resources, whether its devices or the internet, is still a major problem for many, with millions of children lacking basic internet connectivity at home. An Ofcom report from last year found that broadband costs are a struggle for six per cent of families in the UK.

Institutions, therefore, can’t assume eLearning is accessible to all, if and when it is is required. Planning to expand internet connectivity and the learning environment beyond traditional school buildings is therefore essential to ensure fair and equal learning for every student.

As a result, network infrastructure requirements can vary enormously depending on the situation. For instance, extending Wi-Fi into a school car park to create a drive-in school environment has different needs compared to a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot situated in an off-site location, like a residential street, which has a high concentration of students who may lack internet connectivity.

One factor IT leads can consider is the nature of the environment they want Wi-Fi in, as this will help determine the speed of deployment required. After all, the requirements for a densely populated city will vary to that of a rural space. Another is the location. Knowing if the area will be close to the school building itself could make Wi-Fi an option for extending connectivity to areas in close proximity, while remote sites tend to rely on WAN connectivity – from broadband, cellular or private networks. It is crucial this type of upfront planning is carried out when expanding learning services to students to mitigate future issues, ensuring students can achieve infinitely distributed connectivity, at any time, and in any place.

Safeguarding schools and pupils against bad actors

For successful eLearning to take place it is not just about ensuring connectivity but security. This is vital as the pandemic showed that the record numbers of students which turned to virtual learning acted as a hotbed for cyber criminals. One industry report found the global education sector experienced a significant rise of 615% in ransomware incidents alone during the first half of 2021. So, it’s no surprise that some students and teachers experienced the first-hand negative impact of security breaches, such as Zoom bombing, while some who connected through VPNs saw bad actors capitalise on the opportunity by exploiting critical vulnerabilities.

However, the reality is that ransomware attacks on schools are on the up across the board. Since September 2020, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a government agency that provides advice and support for the public and private sectors on how to avoid computer security threats, has published three alerts warning of spikes in ransomware attacks.

It is imperative that online learning and the electronic resources which support it, such as devices, are secure and protect students’ and schools’ privacy – whether they’re physically in a classroom, or online.

A reliable, robust and secure network infrastructure is crucial to shore up safety, security, and privacy. Harrogate Grammar School, a non-selective school for 2,000 pupils, is an example of one institution which, with security in mind, has pioneered access to eLearning so pupils can access education anytime and anywhere. To offer students the best learning experience possible, Harrogate adopted a progressive 1:1 learning approach, which provides each pupil with an iPad to use as their core learning tool, both inside and outside of the classroom. Thanks to having the right set-up, its cloud-driven network technology has provided the school’s IT team with a centralised network management protocol, a highly secure infrastructure, and has enabled it to move its access points and routers seamlessly and securely without a drop in network uptime.

Alongside safeguarding against the threats of cyber criminals during eLearning, educational institutions must bolster the safeguarding of information within their own network. A cloud-network is the modern answer. Cloud-driven networks are self-driving, so have in-built automotive features that detect anomalous behaviour from unauthenticated users to quickly alert the IT team so any issues can be isolated and resolved. This relieves the heavy burden felt by administrators as the system constantly monitors a school’s network, reducing operating costs, optimising performance and most importantly maintaining the safety of both children and teachers alike.

As schools navigate the years ahead, whether it be teaching in-class, via eLearning or a mixture of both, their underlying network infrastructure has never been more important. Schools must act now to ensure they have the right methods in place to meet the digital needs of their students, whether it be in the face of another disruption, such as a pandemic, or to extend the use of certain educational technologies.

Dahwood Ahmed, Regional Director UK&I, Extreme Networks

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