In the week that Education Secretary Damian Hinds has challenged the tech industry to launch an education revolution for schools, colleges and universities, Pete Hannah, Head of Channel, UK&I, Zyxel looks at why we need new technology to spearhead classroom revolution:
The age of schools and colleges acting as solely places of teaching and learning has passed. Nowadays, the classroom and campus environment is more immersive and interactive than was ever thought possible with both teachers and students expecting to be able to reliably connect to the school network, during and after the school day.
Technology’s role in supplementing traditional teaching methods has risen radically over the last decade – the British Education Suppliers Association (BESA) found that secondary schools have more of a reliance on EdTech solutions than their primary counterparts. High schools have a significantly higher demand for tech when it comes to classroom content with 39% agreeing this is the case, while 35% said tech is used for training and 28% said tech is utilised for assessments.
In addition to the vital role that technology plays in enhancing learning, students are also expecting their learning environment to support their personal use of technology too, which is so intrinsic to their lives. Therefore, colleges are experiencing a surge of personal devices connecting to the network at 8.30am, as students arrive on campus, and again at the end of the day when they check their social media accounts.
However, while its demand is unquestionable many institutions find that they cannot provide a consistent and secure service, which both teachers and pupils require, due to IT networks which are not fit for purpose.
Day to day requirements
School and college networks were originally designed to support a few PCs and printers only, but they have had to continually adapt to cope with the external pressures and the ever-evolving modern world.
Since their implementation these networks have seen the introduction of smartboards, streaming, and interactive multi-media, in class tablets and the rise of BYTO (Bring Your Own Devices) to name just a few – but it doesn’t end there.
Research has shown that almost nine out of 10 students (86%) now all want, and expect to be able, to connect their personal devices to the network as soon as they are on the campus grounds. This figure previously stood at just 69% as recently as 2014.
This huge rise in demand for these networks, as well as the reliance on technology for teaching, is resulting in many schools and colleges being unable to adapt their infrastructure quickly enough to keep up with modern day life.
The action many have taken is to add more access points and WiFi routers on the school campuses, as well as in classroom and communal areas such as canteens and libraries.
However, this is not a permanent solution. This is because access points alone won’t be able to absorb the peaks and troughs which can so heavily affect the networks. It is crucial that an understanding of the demands a network faces is gained to ensure a greater quality of service, as well as understanding how to better manage access to it, no matter what is thrown its away.
Colleges can have hundreds of people connected to their networks at any one time, which is comparable to a small enterprise – however, there is a major difference. In learning environments, huge numbers of people need to connect at the same time and if they can’t, for example if students can’t get online during a lesson, this will have a detrimental effect on how much they are able to learn.
It’s not only students either. Different groups of people will also need to access the network at different times throughout the day, for many reasons, which requires flexible bandwidth capacity as well as access to critical online systems while on and off campus. If the network isn’t prepared it won’t be able to cope with this level of usage – it will collapse, leading to a very negative learning experience for pupils.
It's not only the sheer volume of users that can lead to networks being harmed, they are also at an increased risk of attack. The more connections implemented to cope with the demand for its network, the more points of vulnerability are increased, leaving it wide open for breaches or viruses entering and impacting the network.
With budgets and resources quite tight at most colleges and schools, this presents its own problems. It can result in full network visibility not being possible and short-term measures, like upgrades, being put in place but these are simply reactive actions, when it is a long-term plan that is required.
A bandwidth’s ability to deal with the strain it has imposed on it will ultimately impact a teacher’s ability to conduct classroom lessons, which is the priority for the network. Because of this it is vital that colleges ensure network users experience a high-level of service, and pose a low level of risk. Technology is ingrained in our lives, so the demand on the underlying infrastructure that runs the networks is only going to increase.
What is the solution? Networks that are flexible, future proofed and easy to manage. Colleges require a fast, secure and stable WiFi service to ensure high teaching standards, but this is hard to manage amid other IT pressures.
To manage peaks and troughs in usage and deliver current and future technology requirements in the most stable and secure way, the following elements should be the foundation of every IT network strategy:
- Clear visibility and understanding of pressure points. Knowing what access points and areas of the campus are under strain and at what time of day will help the IT team to make provision for peaks and troughs in usage, without second guessing where and when demand is most prevalent.
- Centralised and remote management capabilities. This makes it easier to react to network traffic jams, by managing bottle necks and boosting access to optimise the digital learning experience, and make performance enhancements where it’s needed most, e.g. lecture theatres and public areas.
- Secure and resilient access. Security controls are essential to help mitigate threats to the network and ensure the best user experience. Automated controls make it easy to filter content and restrict access as necessary. Segmenting the network will also ensure it remains secure, no matter who is accessing it.
- Classroom mode. Although a college environment needs to cope with numerous users, the demands will be different from that of a similar sized enterprise. Any networking solution needs to cope with peaks and troughs in usage and the specific demands of college life, from teachers and students, through to the needs of visitors accessing the network. There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to securing the network.
- Energy efficiency. Colleges are under immense pressure to do more with dwindling budgets and stretch resources even further. Powering the network can be a cost drain. Although it might sound like a drop in the ocean, the ability to power off (or down) elements of the network when necessary, will help save electricity and reduce unnecessary running costs.
By focusing on these areas, colleges, schools and universities can ensure that the technology they use is successfully enhancing the learning experience.
Pete Hannah, Head of Channel, UK&I, Zyxel