Too many who design network infrastructures for schools or campuses believe that they are creating something akin to a standard enterprise architecture, and that just a few tweaks will turn it magically into a education architecture. It is a completely untenable view. A network for a school or college or campus is a network like no other.
This is the first of a two-part post outlining some of the unique aspects that must be considered by anyone trying to design and build an education network that will truly meet the current and future needs of teachers and students.
Thanks to technology, today’s educators are beginning to transform education so that the full potential of every student and every teacher in schools, colleges and universities can be realized. Intelligently-applied technology is a critical component of educational transformation, and it enables every school, college or campus of any size to make dramatic changes to their educational environments to be as fit-for-purpose as possible in the 21st Century.
Digital and networking technologies enable an education institution to offer a flexible and future-proofed environment that ensures the potential for real change in education, enables real enhancements in administrative efficiency, and achieves real improvements in academic, creative and vocational excellence. Every aspect of the built environment should contribute positively to these aims, and the physical networking and ICT environment within and across the schools is a major part of that.
The core rationale in designing and implementing a digital infrastructure for education is to ensure:
- IP Everywhere: the network must reach every space and every potential device across the institution, including voice and video communications, smart building technologies, physical security facilities and all teaching and learning equipment and facilities;
- Every student has the same access to all the available resources;
- Schools, colleges and campuses have the tools they need to provide a true ‘classroom without walls’;
- The technology environments provided within the institution reflect as far as possible those in the outside world, especially in the world of work, so that students do not have to step back in time when they enter the classroom or lecture hall;
- Information flow and processes can be streamlined and automated so that data can be provided effectively and efficiently for decision making;
- Effective communication is enabled within the building, between buildings, between the school or campus and any external authority (such as a school district or local authority), between the institution and the home, between the institution and the wider community, and across the connected world;
- The infrastructure is sufficiently flexible to allow for future developments in ICT to be readily incorporated into educational practice;
- Finding the optimum balance between initial network functionality, scope for further development in the future, and costs, both capital and ongoing.
The education environment offers a number of distinctive challenges that require to be taken into account when designing and implementing the physical networking infrastructure:
- Potentially very large numbers of concurrent users of the local area network, especially on wifi, and multiple simultaneous external connections to the WAN and/or to the Internet;
- Frequent ‘spikes’ in network use, especially in a high school environment, where students are logging on and off at the start and end of timetabled classes throughout the day;
- Reliable access required across a mix of devices simultaneously;
- Universal dense access to wifi throughout the school or college or campus – not just in classrooms! – and possibly beyond the walls of the institution;
- Real-time optimization of the network to cope with changing RF and client conditions to maximise reliability;
- Prioritization of learning-critical applications and QoS-sensitive traffic such as voice, video conferencing and streaming video;
- Multi-layered user-based or role-based security to cope with differentiation of users – students of various ages, teachers, administrative staff, guest users (including potentially users of a BYOD facility)