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Avoiding a pain in the tech

Pete Hannah, of Zyxel Europe, advises how creaking old school networks can be updated to meet the ever-increasing demands of pupils and teachers alike

Posted by Julian Owen | August 14, 2018 | Technology

Academies and secondary schools are no longer just places of teaching and learning. The classroom and campus environment is immersive and interactive, with students and teachers expecting to readily and reliably connect to the school network, during and after the school day.   

The focus on technology to supplement traditional teaching methods has risen dramatically over the past 10 years. Indeed, recent research by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) found that the demand for edtech in secondary schools is higher than in primaries, with significantly more demand for classroom content (39%), training (35%) and assessment (28%). 

In addition to the vital role that technology plays in enhancing learning, students are also expecting the school environment to support their personal use of technology so intrinsic to their lives. As such, schools 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. 

But while the demand for and value of technology in the classroom (and beyond) is not in question, secondary schools are still finding themselves struggling to deliver the consistent and secure service that students and teachers need, due to IT networks unfit for purpose.  

Daily demands

Initially designed to support a few PCs and printers, school networks have had to continually adapt to cope with internal and external pressures, including the introduction of – to name just a few - smartboards, streaming and interactive multimedia, in-class tablets, and the influx of 'bring your own devices' (BYOD) .It’s estimated that 86% of 12 to 15-year-olds in the UK regularly use mobile phones, compared to 69% in 2014. 

This steady rise in the use of personal devices, combined with the reliance on technology for teaching, is putting a huge strain on the network. Many schools are simply unable to adapt their infrastructure quickly enough to manage the ever-changing demands.  

"While the demand for and value of technology in the classroom (and beyond) is not in question, secondary schools are still finding themselves struggling to deliver the consistent and secure service that students and teachers need, due to IT networks unfit for purpose."  

Fast fix

For many, the solution has been to add more access points and wifi routers around the campus, but this alone won’t be able to deal with the peaks and troughs which plague the network. Only by understanding the demands and being able to better manage access will schools ensure a quality of service, no matter what is thrown at the network. 

In a learning environment, huge numbers of people need to connect simultaneously. For example, if students can’t get online during a lesson, they could find themselves unable to access resources when needed, which will impact the ability for teachers to teach. Different groups of people also need to access the network at different times of day, for multiple reasons, requiring flexible bandwidth capacity and access to critical online systems while on and off campus. If the network isn’t prepared to cope with this level of usage, it will collapse and have a detrimental effect on learning and campus life. 

Along with the sheer volume of users, the security of the network is also at increased risk. Further connections increase the points of vulnerability for the school, leaving it more open to breaches or viruses entering and impacting the network. 

Whilst it is not uncommon for secondary schools to have a dedicated IT or network manager, their remit is often very broad, covering everything from ordering printer toner to fixing laptops and everything in between. Keeping on top of everything can be difficult. Resources and budgets are often tight, which can mean that full network visibility is often not an option, while upgrades and fixes are reactive and deal with short term requirements, rather than planning for the long-term. 

"This steady rise in the use of personal devices, combined with the reliance on technology for teaching, is putting a huge strain on the network."

Future proofing the network

The strain on bandwidth will ultimately impact a teacher’s ability to teach, which should be the first priority for the network. With technology integral 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. While schools require a fast, secure and stable wifi service to ensure high teaching standards, this can be a challenge to manage around 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 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, without second-guessing where and when demand is most prevalent.

2. Centralised and remote management capabilities
This will make it easy to react to network traffic jams, by managing bottlenecks 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 remains secure, no matter who is accessing it.

4. Classroom mode 
Although a school environment needs to cope with numerous users, the demands will be different from that of a similarly sized enterprise. Any networking solution needs to cope with peaks and troughs in usage and the specific demands of school 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 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 underpin life and learning.

Pete Hannah is Head of Channel UK&I at Zyxel Europe.

 

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