Dahwood Ahmed, Regional Manager UK&I, Extreme Networks

Coronavirus has brought with it a new set of challenges for the education sector. As a result of the UK government's decision to close schools, colleges and nurseries across the country in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, numerous questions have been raised about how children’s education will be affected.

The top priority for these institutions has been to ensure that their academic progress doesn’t stall while they prioritise their health and wellbeing. In addressing this situation, many educational organisations are finding new ways to facilitate distance learning and pursue positive outcomes for their students through the integration of an array of digital technologies. 

Fortunately, the UK was leading the way in facilitating distance learning long before coronavirus made it necessary, with 58% of Brits aged 16 to 24 using online learning materials, and 29% enrolled in online courses in 2019.

As such, many organisations and students are adjusting well to the transition from traditional teaching methods to remote learning. Much as remote working and paperless workspaces have been a boon to efficiency in the workplace, digital innovation in education has become more widely adopted as its advantages become more apparent to education decision makers. 

A Digital Generation

Today’s students are at an advantage when it comes to using digital learning tools. Unlike previous generations, they have grown up with extensive exposure to computers, smartphones, tablets and other smart devices. This means that they are both more readily able to use these tools without extensive adjustment periods and, more notably, they respond better to them. These students are adept with using digital tools independently and also have experience with information rich media such as videos and interactive tutorials. While this may have made more traditional learning methods such as pen and paper fall to the wayside, it provides educators with a great opportunity to integrate the latest technologies into the classroom and thereby engage their students, increase their content retention, and improve their outcomes. 

Another advantage for educators teaching this tech native generation is that today's students are pioneering new ways of interacting with each other using technology. For instance, while traditional sports clubs have been put on hold due to social distancing, technology-driven clubs like esports are still thriving. We have seen esports develop from a relatively niche hobby to a well-respected extracurricular activity. In fact, 1 in 5 schools around the world currently already have an esports program while 71% are considering or might consider adding an esports program in the future. Continuing human interactions is an important practice while we maintain social distancing and esports is helping many students stay in touch during this time. The persistence of esports during the pandemic has demonstrated the strength of digital solutions in ensuring human connection, even at the most challenging of times. 

That being said, as educational institutions embrace digital solutions, they may find that it creates challenges for their existing IT infrastructure. Given that classrooms in the near future could be hosting numerous personal devices, laptops, drones, chatbots, 3D printers or even esports competitions, it is important that the underlying network and back of house technologies are sufficiently robust. Anticipating this, 81% of schools, colleges and universities in the UK have invested in improving their wireless networks to ensure that all these solutions are deployed with reliable performance. After all, these solutions will best engage students when they are not hampered by slow network speeds, unreliable performance or poor connections. For those not already investing in supporting infrastructure for their digital initiatives, now is a better time than any to build a strong backbone to host the classroom of tomorrow. 

Preparing for Tomorrow’s Classroom

Given the rapid pace of technological adoption, especially among today’s students, the legacy network infrastructure used by some organisations is becoming obsolete. Most students have multiple smart devices each but even supporting just one device per student is enough to strain most older wireless networks. If classrooms are to host a greater number of digital learning tools in the future, smartboards, 3D printers, chatbots and digital assistants, then these networks need to be updated. Institutions should be looking to the latest wireless networking solutions, such as Wi-Fi 6, but also consider extending the wired and wireless network footprint beyond the traditional campus to a more widespread secure local and remote offering if they are to keep pace with the evolving needs of their classroom.

While performance and reliability are important considerations when upgrading wireless networks, they should not come before security. The privacy of students is paramount and due attention should be given to insulating students from accessing distracting or malicious content. Seeing as these networks will also stretch across campus, they should also be appropriately siloed to prevent students accessing applications and data exclusively intended for staff. Network segmentation is key here as it allows the network to be subdivided into segments appropriate for different functions and also prevents lateral movement in the event of a breach.

With a more expansive network also comes greater responsibility for the IT team. To ensure smooth operation and constant availability of digital assets, these staff will need to spend more time managing the myriad of technologies incorporated into the curriculum and the network that hosts them all. Fortunately for these teams, this burden is being reduced through the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and self-driving networks. With these solutions reducing the overhead costs needed to ensure a robust, reliable and resilient end-to-end network, the IT team has more time free to devote to value-add initiatives that sustain the network over the long term and improve IT services for students. Self-driving networks additionally offer independent monitoring of the network environment and optimisation of performance. This further improves reliability and bolsters security as the network automatically identifies anomalous behaviour and triggers alerts for the security team.

Given the role that distance learning technologies are playing in continuing education during the coronavirus pandemic, it is likely that they will be more widely adopted in education even once it is over. A more digitally driven curriculum will improve student outcomes, but it is important to remember that these innovations are reliant on a solid network that can provide a robust framework for these technologies to work within. Investing in their networks today will open up countless possibilities for educators in both bringing us closer to the potential of distance learning and modernising the classroom.

Dahwood Ahmed, Regional Manager UK&I, Extreme Networks

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