Laying the Foundations for Tomorrow’s Digital Schools


Changing realities for students and learning

"From a technology perspective, we live in exciting and dynamic times. Just like other industries, education needs to give serious thought to how to use new cloud-based infrastructure to its advantage" says Darren Bindert of Syscomm

Today’s primary and secondary school students have never experienced life without the internet or smartphones and this reality is being reflected in the classroom.  Traditional textbook learning and lecture-style classroom teaching are being enhanced by digital learning processes and experiences, including online lessons, testing and assessments. Moreover, laptops, tablets, and smartphones have become an indispensable instruction tool for students, who are accessing an increasing number of online apps / sites to enhance their personal digital learning experience.

For schools of all sizes, this is presenting challenges as these solutions tax the limits of network capacity, overload wireless network access points, and introduce latency issues in applications. More mobile devices and a growing network footprint are also creating additional security issues.

In short, everything has changed over the past few years, and with the current pandemic having highlighted some serious shortcomings in the network infrastructure of most school, now is the optimal time to re-evaluate and re-build the network.

The implications of this for any school is clear. The underlying IT network that supports these innovative educational advances must be a cost-effective investment today, while also extending value into the future as a platform for new technologies now entering the educational space.

In short, what is needed is a robust, secure wired Local and Wide Area Network supported by pervasive wireless connectivity.  Refreshing a school’s network provides a real opportunity to streamline processes and reduce duplication of effort while promoting a more collaborative, mobile and flexible way of working.  Centralised management of IT infrastructure and a ‘branch office’ approach to architecture, utilising the Cloud, can transform the cost and efficiency of a school’s operations.

Interconnected IT serves to boost the operational efficiency department and promote ICT to a heightened strategic level across the school – both in the classroom and the boardroom – positioning IT as an enabler of innovation, rather than a costly inhibitor.

‘Digital Transformation’ is a complex confluence of vision, design, delivery and people. There’s every chance that the path to harmonisation may not be entirely harmonious. It’s essential to get the fundamentals right first time, and leadership and local curriculum orientated IT teams should recognise that multi-site infrastructure requires a structurally different architecture to IT within an individual Academy.

Strong Foundations are Built to Last

Build your IT as you would a building – ensure the network foundations are fit for purpose, that the system can adapt and is built to last. ‘Buyer’s remorse’ once you’re up and running, particularly with multi-site operations, will be costly and disruptive – take the time to build it right first time.

Avoid stretching what infrastructure you have without thorough consideration. Much can be reused, but the architectural approach to multi-site networking is different; if stretching will create cracks, or divergence from best practice then the network and every application it supports is adrift. Efforts to patch real-time issues leads to further divergence in technology and teams, adding new complexities over time.

With student enrolment numbers and many schools and universities exceeding the headcount at the entire DfE, the infrastructure must be delivered to an ‘enterprise’ standard and capable of non-stop 24/7 operation for thousands of users.

Some buildings, especially older ones, may provide additional challenges for schools wishing to build out or upgrade their network. A network assessment, conducted by school technology support teams or a certified consultant, is the first step. The assessment will identify mechanical, electrical, and environmental conditions that need to be addressed. Examples include the location and condition of existing network cabling and hardware, the number and location of existing wireless access points, and physical building attributes that interfere with wireless signals. Beyond the network assessment, consider additional physical infrastructure questions such as the number of electrical outlets available in classrooms to charge mobile devices.

The design requires Wide Area Networking and Data Centre expertise to deliver a fault tolerant architecture that can be maintained without enforced out-of-hours work for stretched IT teams.

Seek network specialists with experience delivering a no-compromise solution within the tight budget constraints that many schools are facing.  Finding enterprise-class advice that is practical and affordable will de-risk your journey towards IT nirvana!

Be wary of cost-first solutions that push Small Business solutions up into your enterprise space. The costs may be tempting, but pushing anything up-hill is exhausting, and today’s schools need to be able to scale without hassle. You’ll want to avoid being the testbed for a vendor’s ambitions in an enterprise segment.

Strip out Complexity to Save Time and Money

At a basic level, simply reducing the number of Servers in the school’s infrastructure will enable ICT staff to spend less time maintaining ‘tin,’ to refocus on user-side enhancements, with users increasingly able to enjoy a consistent IT experience, particularly for Multi Academy trusts, whose schools are spread across multiple sites. Finance sees an immediate ROI with lower energy bills, lower Server replacement costs and lower licensing bills.

Access Control is an easily understood example; staff carry a Door Access fob for each Academy they visit; each is programmed individually at each site. 10 sites require 10 cards and 10 tasks on 10 Servers, it’s inefficient and invites human error with granting or revoking access.

Following convergence, one card is programmed once to permit (or revoke) access across the MAT. Should an Academy join the MAT, their doors are added centrally, and access is extended automatically to the required groups. 10 Servers become 2 – with the 2nd acting as a backup and to add new resiliency. This one example removes 80% of the servers required for Access Control, whilst also reducing the scope for human error in the administration of site security.

Similar convergence is readily available across many IT functions including Data Storage, Desktop Deployment, Licensing, MIS Databases, CCTV, Telephony, WiFi, Content Filtering, Offsite Backup and Disaster Recovery.

Darren Bindert
Darren Bindert

Across all areas, the MAT can lower their operational IT costs, strip away complexity and deliver Trust-wide consistency through a simplified, harmonised IT platform.

Deliver a high-performance access network

Supporting digital learning requires a WLAN infrastructure that can handle a large number of diverse mobile devices and the bandwidth-hungry applications running on them.

Key points to consider include:

Plan for density:

Students carry multiple mobile devices which are either school provided or their own (BYOD). Adding teacher devices, classroom tools like projectors and printers, and all sorts of new IoT devices, means planning for density is planning for success.

Assess WLAN bandwidth requirements:

The speed of the network matters and so it’s critical to determine what is required to support instructors teaching style, including mobile devices. The modern classroom is an interactive space fostering collaborative learning, digital problem solving and increased student engagement. Key to this development is the need for reliable and adequate broadband throughout the school.  

Handle bandwidth needs with 802.11ac Wave 2 technology: 

Cheap, or entry-level model, access points designed to support 5 or 10 users is going to have disastrous results if deployed in a school environment.

Eliminate roaming issues:

As students roam between access points, their devices can get stuck on an AP instead of associating with a closer one that has a stronger signal. The ideal network infrastructure should eliminate this so that older generation devices or a disproportional distribution of users doesn’t drag down the network.

Adjust LAN access to support this new generation of access points:

To avoid bottlenecks and cabling rework, upgrade to access switches that support 2.5 G/5G ports (with PoE) and 10G uplinks.

Core Recommendations:

  1. Recognise that education networks are critical components of schools' infrastructures
  2. Recognise that 1-to-1 programs are quickly becoming the mainstream and plan accordingly
  3. Start network planning and upgrade processes by consulting with teachers and administrators
  4. Understand that accessing content and resources is just as critical outside of the classroom as inside
  5. Ensure that rigorous security measures are built into your network designs
  6. Make future-focused design choices in terms of scalability and adaptability

An essential element of providing a 21st century education for today’s students is ensuring the existence of technology infrastructure to support personalized learning, high-quality instruction, collaboration, increased engagement, and creativity. Our students live in a connected world where they will be expected to engage and interact with peers and experts online, create and design with digital tools, and be exemplary digital citizens.

With vision and supported by a modern infrastructure, our schools will be better able to support students with the opportunity to learn and thrive.  Most UK schools are at critical junctures in their technology planning and investment life cycles.  Student engagement and academic achievement can be transformed by 24/7 access to quality digital content and personalised learning models, but only if reliable education networks have been established.

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