‘Old school’ networks out for good, not just summer

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The days of schools and academies being limited to institutes of learning and teaching are in the past. The campus and classroom has become an interactive and immersive zone, with teachers and students alike holding expectations of connecting to a network that is both reliable and readily available.

The focus on technology to supplement traditional teaching methods has risen drastically. Recent research conducted by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) found the EdTech solutions demand in secondary schools is higher than in primary schools, with significantly more demand for training (35%), classroom content (39%) and assessment (28%). 

Technology plays a vital role in enhancing the learning of pupils in schools. Additionally, students hold expectations of the school environment to support their personal use of technology. This has led to schools experiencing an increase of personal devices being connected to their network at 8:30 am and an additional surge at the end of the day, when students tend to view their social media accounts.

There is no questioning the value and demand of classroom technology, with secondary schools continuing to struggle to provide students and teachers with a secure, and consistent, service due to lacklustre IT networks.  

Daily demand 

Initially, the school IT networks were built to support a minimal set up of a few printers and computers. Now, these networks must adapt continuously to cope with both internal and external pressures including emerging technologies such as streaming, smartboards, interactive multi-media, tablet use in class and the influx of BYOD (bring your own device). It’s estimated that 86% of 12 to 15-year-olds in the UK regularly use mobile phones, compared to 69% in 2014. That’s almost nine in 10 students all wanting to connect to the network after arriving on the school campus.

This rise in personal device usage by students, combined with the reliance on technology for teaching is putting a huge strain on the network leaving many schools simply unable to adapt their infrastructure quickly enough to manage the demands. 

Temporary fix 

One popular solution has been to add more WiFi routers and access points around a school’s facilities. Access points alone will be unable to deal with the ups and downs which haunt the network. By understanding the demands, schools will be able to ensure a quality of service regardless of what obstacles a network faces.

The number of users on secondary school networks can almost rival the number of users in a small enterprise. In learning environments, many users will need to connect simultaneously. If students can’t get online during a lesson, they could find themselves unable to access resources when needed, impacting a teacher’s ability to teach. To combat this requires a flexible bandwidth capacity and access to critical online systems while on and off the campus. If the network isn’t prepared to cope with this level of usage, it will collapse.

Alongside the large volume of users, the network’s security is at an increased risk. More connections will increase the points of vulnerability for the school, opening an increased risk of breaches and viruses entering and impacting the network. 

Whilst it is not uncommon for secondary schools to have a dedicated network manager, their remit is often very broad – covering everything from ordering printer toner to fixing laptops. Keeping on top of the needs of the network, from access to security, along with managing day-to-day IT pressures can prove difficult. Resources and budgets are often meaning full network visibility is often not an option, and that upgrades, and fixes are reactive, dealing with short term requirements rather than planning long-term planning. 

Future proofing 

The strain on bandwidth will impact a teacher’s ability to teach, which should be the first priority for the network. With technology being an integral element to teaching and a core part of students’ social interactions, the demands on the underlying infrastructure that make it all possible are only going to continue. 

So, what’s the answer? Networks that are flexible, future proofed and easy to manage. Schools require a fast, stable and secure WiFi service to ensure high teaching standards, but this can be a challenge to manage around other IT pressures.

The following elements should be the foundation of every school’s IT network strategy:

1. 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.

2. Centralised and remote management capabilities

This will make it easy 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.

3. 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 always remains secure.

4. Classroom mode

Although a school 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, 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 school network.

5. Energy efficiency

Schools 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, academies and secondary schools can ensure that technology continues to successfully enhance life and learning.

Pete Hannah, Head of Channel UK&I at Zyxel 

Image Credit: Štefan Štefančík / Unsplash