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 second 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.
A network architecture for schools should be built on a foundation that enables the following:
- High Availability – maximum resilience and redundancy balanced against cost considerations;
- Single Infrastructure / Multi-Service – 21st Century schools require different services to share the same physical network, with each service potentially requiring its own logical network;
- Quality of Service / Differentiated Services – an understanding of which types of network usage in a school place the greatest demands on the network, and which need to be given priority over others;
- Mobility – pupils are less and less desk-bound in the modern school and will often be using laptops as well as handheld devices such a tablets, netbooks (including chromebooks), e-readers and even smartphones, almost always on a wireless network;
- Roaming Capability – given a network covering a number of schools, and with potentially frequent movement of students and teachers around the town, the ability for every user to log on to the network anywhere will be critical;
- Bandwidth – a school cannot have too much bandwidth for both wired and wireless network capacity as well as for external connections to the Internet;
- Future-proofing – consideration of future uses of BYOD, the Cloud (private, public and hybrid), software-defined networking, virtualization of the desktop, Internet of Things and meshing with 3G/4G/(5G) networks;
- Data convergence – unifying multi-point communications across text, audio and video will place an increasing burden on networks and on Internet connections;
- Network structure – a single physical network for all the Dumfries schools, or individual networks? Who will manage the network: the schools or D&GC?
- Smart buildings – will the network be used for energy management, security, etc?
Whether serving a single school or a group of schools, a school network should be designed on the basis of a clear understanding of the reasons for its implementation. A school network is not simply a re-branded enterprise network – it has to serve a variety of uses and a diversity of users that are simply not required by a standard enterprise environment, including most large corporate networks. A complete description of this multiplicity of uses and users will be created for the full ICT Strategy. For the purposes of this outline, the following considerations will give a flavour of what makes a school network different:
- Learning anywhere, any time, and on any device – minimising or removing barriers to online and network access is becoming increasingly important;
- The expectations of students (and of teachers) with respect to technology are changing, and 24/7 access to the network is increasingly essential, since there is growing recognition of the importance of learning outwith the formal timetable;
- Teacher professional development, both formal and informal, is moving inexorably online (and that includes the quest to improve the quality of teachin in higher education), and teaching (and other) staff increasingly require online access as well as access to school or university or external-authority hosted resources at all times and from locations beyond the school;
- The walls of the classroom are progressively more virtual, and the classroom now resides as much on the network and on the Web as within the physical walls of the school;
- Sophisticated learning environments offering digital content, tools for collaboration, online assessment, web applications of all kinds, and access to rich media (audio, video, transmedia, etc) will continue to develop;
- Moving gradually from a ‘teacher-centric’ to ‘learner-centric’ education in which pupils today are no longer merely consumers of information – they are increasingly creators and producers of content, most of which is stored in the Cloud and produced or manipulated using online and Web-based tools;
- Students today are creating and sharing video, photos, code and music, and they are increasingly using Web 2.0 tools such as blogs (and vlogs), wikis, podcasting and instant messaging, as well as a range of social media;
- The Web is now the platform for learning, and schools are growing users of social networks and other online platforms for teaching and learning;
- Learning communities, formal and informal, extend far beyond the walls of the school, and they are expanding greatly throughout all sectors of education – activities utilising interactive video, voice, on-demand video, Web collaboration, across the full range of connected devices, are accelerating;
- An education network, unlike an enterprise network, has to be capable of hosting and coping with many hundreds, possibly even thousands, of applications;
- The changing definition and purpose of the library – still at the heart of the school, but in the age of digital text, less to do with paper books, and more to do with educational exploitation of digital media and the promotion of new forms of formal and informal learning (such as Makerspaces, digital badging, search tools, digital research, etc)
The education network has to cope with a unique mix of users, very different from a standard enterprise network:
- Potentially, large numbers of concurrent network users, with high levels of variability in usage, access requirements;
- A unique set of security requirements – network access (in many school districts, for example) by children and young people from 5 years to 18 years, teachers, school managers, technical staff, other staff, guests;
- 1-1 computing – possibly through a buying/leasing policy, but more likely through a combination of BYOD and device lending;
- Possible external access to resources on the network, for example where schools wish to allow parental access to their children’s data;
- Frequent movement of users around the buildings and between buildings, and who want to remain connected as they move.
Anyone who believes they can simply take the usual parameters of an enterprise network, give it a few tweaks and call it an education network is kidding themselves. And worse, they will not serve the real and ongoing educational interests of those to whom the network will matter most, the learners and teachers in the schools, colleges or universities.