Over the last five years, there has been a dramatic shift in how learning is delivered. Wireless coverage is more critical than ever. Whether it is primary or secondary schools, going the distance to implement full wireless coverage is key as all students rely on it for learning. Remote learning has, of course, changed in the last few years as well. This includes SaaS offerings like Google Classroom, Zoom, and the many other tools used by both teachers and students. This has led to explosive growth for these offerings, as well as the need to install, configure, integrate, and support them.
Going the Distance with Bandwidth
While bandwidth for schools has not typically been an issue, the ability of the faculty and staff to learn and adapt their teaching and support to the new platforms was challenging in the early days of the pandemic. In addition, the ability of schools to source items such as Chromebooks, video units, and other hardware to support remote instructional delivery was challenging. Potentially mixed environments of technology for some schools lead to compatibility issues. Some of this is driven by programs such as E-Rate that set standards for what technology is selected based on price and not necessarily on the ‘best’ solution. In addition, securing these infrastructures is becoming increasingly more challenging as more and more data is encrypted, going at higher speeds and to unknown networks and devices. Since wireless connectivity is so critical, schools often times will skip a wireless survey to ensure proper access point placement, which can be seen as an unnecessary step. As Wi-Fi technologies come to market (Wi-Fi 6), the design needs to change so as not to interfere with the current coverage model most schools have.
Internet connectivity plays a critical role in a school’s ability to provide virtual learning. While a number of schools leverage SaaS offerings, thus lowering the need for redundancy for those applications, there is still a need for more bandwidth and redundancy to support the students, faculty, and staff who are on campus. In addition, this would include the ability to have insight into what is on the network so that proper precautions can be made to ensure that all people have enough bandwidth but also have the ability to provide security. As bandwidth speeds increase, the need to secure the additional bandwidth becomes critical, which drives the need to upgrade security and network infrastructure.
School districts can improve their technology in a way that is both cost-effective and easily accessible for students and staff by being open to new technologies and partners. Most importantly, while programs such as E-Rate specify the lowest cost option be considered first, schools need some flexibility to make other decisions since the initial purchase price is only part of the total cost of ownership. An inexpensive item upfront may cost more to support over the life of the product, lead to outages or overall dissatisfaction from the user base.
Educating Staff & Students
With an increased number of staff and students utilizing district technology and devices need to maintain the safety of network connections and hardware, there is no one right way to approach the issues. This is a multifaceted problem that does not have one ‘silver bullet’ to meet these goals. It’s typically a combination of technologies on the network (security policies, methodologies SASE), the devices (district and student-owned), as well as comprehensive education so that all users have a clear understanding of what’s acceptable and what is not. This would also include training on phishing and other strategies that hackers might leverage. School districts can educate their staff and students on the importance of network security while teaching and learning virtually by leveraging companies that specialize in this specific user training. They have comprehensive education platforms and metrics to document how users are progressing with the training.
When it comes to designing networks and digital infrastructure to adapt to the changing needs of school buildings, it’s important to ensure that the latest technologies are leveraged when appropriate, but also to recognize that a properly implemented Wi-Fi 5 network is going to be far better than a poorly implemented and architected Wi-Fi 6 network. In addition, schools will need to keep in mind that networking cabling upgrades will need to be considered so that they can leverage new technologies as they come to market. By implementing “smart campus” type solutions where appropriate, especially in the days of COVID-19, contact tracing, temperature screenings, and other prevention methods can be performed with minimal effort.
In the future, there will be a tremendous need to upgrade both primary and secondary campuses across the board in the next three to five years.