Managing ICT: wireless challenges

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Wireless networks are now essential to the day-to-day operation of schools. Gill Tica looks at the challenges schools face in setting up a robust wireless network and offers some advice on getting your network right.

Think of your wireless in the same way you would think of your electricity. It should be a utility working reliably everywhere all the time, be fast enough, scale easily, support a variety of devices, be simple to maintain and cost-effective, and it must provide a high level of security for the network.

A robust wireless network is critical – especially as schools begin to rely more heavily on online cloud services for learning, school administration and management. It should enable your staff and pupils to use their laptops (even at the end of the playing field) and should be consistently reliable.

So what challenges might you encounter with your wireless? First, you need to ensure your connections don’t become patchy over larger areas. Second, with the increasing numbers and variety of wireless devices, you need to be sure that each device gets its fair share of the connection, regardless of the device capability. Finally, you need to make sure that you meet your students’ expectations.

A building’s construction and existing cabling can also critically determine how easily you can create a reliable, high-performance wireless network. Older buildings often have very basic problems, such as insufficient or non-existent Ethernet cabling. Wall thickness and material can also significantly limit the transmission of wireless signals.

Many schools have experimented with or established wireless networks that may be giving poor performance and connection black-spots because building issues were not properly taken into account when they were installed. 

Challenges include an increasing demand for wireless devices (some of which have don’t have an Ethernet port, so no hard-wire option) meaning greater traffic overall, with peaks at the start and end of lessons.

Web-based services mean more data is being centrally stored while trouble-shooting and managing the wireless estate on large campuses can be a geographical challenge. The diversity of demands on the bandwidth of high and low density learning spaces can make planning a complex issue, but overall there is a strong requirement to ensure the security of the network for the safeguarding of your teachers and learners.

The increase in use of cloud services is making BYOD (bring your own device) a growing attraction. It is forecast that by the end of 2015 the number of devices will have increased to more than 600,000, with a further rise to 1.8 million by the end of 2020, according to research from the British Educational Suppliers Association in 2013.

A BYOD scheme can facilitate both formal and informal learning by providing anytime, anywhere access to curriculum resources as well as other learning resources, tools and apps.

BYOD schemes can also help to improve communication and collaboration in school and provide a cost-effective way for you to increase your device-to-pupil ratio. Pupils embrace technology and are keen and quick to adapt to devices they are familiar with, and it broadens the range of functions available to students in school, such as video capture on phones. Ultimately, this eases the pressure on shared resources in the classroom by using software such as e-books.

However, both BYOD schemes and adopting a greater number of cloud services will have a major impact on your wireless network. 

If it can’t cope with the device load placed on it, access to online resources could be frustratingly slow, so it is critical that you plan to provide sufficient bandwidth and capacity so that your wireless network can provide fair airtime to any device – wherever they roam within the school. Consider the diversity of service provision across libraries and auditoriums (high density) versus administration (low density but high bandwidth).

BYOD schemes, by their very nature, also require non-school-owned devices to be given secure and safe access to the network. A BYOD-ready wireless network will allow BYOD devices to have their network access controlled and tracked in a similar manner to school-owned mobile devices.

Wireless should enable schools to have fast log-in and reliable connections to ensure less disruption in lessons, and provide users with fair access to bandwidth as and when they need it. It should also provide secured access for authorised users only, a centralised wireless management system to save time and reduce costs, and allow for simple expansion with no downtime.

You need to plan ahead for both your current and future needs when it comes to wireless and get the right advice for your ICT journey.

Your provider should undertake a thorough survey to understand what they will need to implement in order to realise your vision for the school and the best way to get there within budget and timescale – it is not just a case of adding access points and hoping for the best. You should also be able to trial a wireless network to see if it works in your unique establishment.

Ideally, you should be opting for a wireless system that can cope with the unique requirements of education (ie, lots of pupils logging on at the same time and roaming around between learning areas). Just because a wireless solution works well within a commercial environment, it doesn’t mean that it would be good in an educational environment because of the different modes of use.

  • Gill Tica is wireless product manager at RM Education.


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