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Top 10 Things to Know to Fix Your School Network

17 Dec 2015 by Lana Gates

Technology is changing how students learn and how educators teach, offering more personalized and interactive instruction. Spurred on by Common Core State Standards, schools are being forced to adopt technology — made more affordable by the federal government’s E-Rate program — to stay competitive and effective.

But the school technology infrastructures from just a few years ago were not made to handle the demand of today’s wireless technologies and mobile devices. Here are 10 steps school districts can take to improve their networks:

1. Know your objectives.

It’s not enough just to know your goals. You also need to understand your requirements to reach those goals, says John Brooks, director of technical services at Insight. “You can’t put a wireless network on top of an old infrastructure,” he asserts.

Brooks has led the installation of several thousand school networks in the western U.S. He and his team assess network infrastructures and then work with school districts to upgrade copper and cabling in the walls and rebuild networks from the ground up when necessary.

2. Think ahead and plan for the future.

Your district may be buying laptops now. Do they have disk drives? Or will they take advantage of the cloud? If the latter, you may need to provide some training to staff.

You’ll also need bandwidth and a network to support your plan, says Heather Breedlove, technology integration coordinator for the Flagstaff Unified School District in Arizona. She facilitates and coordinates training opportunities to help teachers integrate technology into their lesson plans and curricula.

Breedlove’s former school district didn’t plan ahead and had to go back and add in redundancies and more security to support growth, she says.

3. Get buy-in from all parties involved.

When planning your technology road map, it’s important to get input from all of the different sponsors for the network, including heating/cooling and security — channels you wouldn’t normally think of. If the security team installs security cameras, for example, those technologies will affect your network performance.

4. Don’t overcomplicate the network.

Keeping it simple will reduce costs and improve the user experience, notes Duane Wheeler, senior architect for the networking practice at Insight. He recommends a solution that’s automatic and simple. “You want to turn it on and have it work,” he says. “You don’t want someone to have to come fix it every day.”

5. Accurately calculate your bandwidth requirements.

Start by getting your current daily bandwidth consumption from your internet service provider.

“You can calculate bandwidth to a degree based on student enrollment,” Brooks says, allowing a certain amount per student. “You’ve got to have some kind of gauge to know how many connected devices you’re going to have in the school,” he adds. “Every student has an iPad. Laptops are connected now. You need to know what the connected audience is for the school.”

6. Block high-bandwidth websites.

Breedlove’s school district looked at the bandwidth suckers on its network and decided to block them to increase performance. Pandora and Spotify, for example, aren’t accessible on school grounds. YouTube, however, is since it’s used for instructional videos.

7. Understand the basics of radio frequency and controllers.

Recognizing how controllers change the settings that manage power and how they deal with data rates and channel widths is the key to creating proper isolation for optimal access point location.

Each access point listens to three of its neighboring access points, Wheeler explains. “You need radio frequency experts and people who understand the architecture design to place access points in a way that not only covers the area but reduces interference.”

You’ve got to be able to roam and have your devices communicate between access points, he adds. “If you have too much channel overlap, then when devices talk, everybody in the other cells hears them too, and it slows them down.”

8. Install your access points for optimal performance.

Because each school is different — and some have fewer devices than others — there’s no set placement strategy that works across the board. Places to avoid installing access points, however, include hallways and data closets.

“Put access points in places where they’ll be used,” Wheeler encourages. “Make sure each access point coordinates with an antenna. If it’s up high, you may want to use directional antennas.”

He cautions, though, to avoid putting access points up high and cranking their power. That just creates more noise and issues.

9. Establish a policy for personal devices.

Today’s students have grown accustomed to taking their devices with them wherever they go, but that doesn’t mean classrooms have to allow their use — or that school Wi-Fi networks have to grant those devices access. If you decide to allow them, establish realistic parameters and ensure your wireless network can support them — today and five to 10 years down the road.

10. Partner with someone you can trust.

Along with trust, you want a partner that can provide the best technology at the lowest long-term cost — not the lowest upfront cost, Wheeler stresses.

With all of the changes happening in wireless technologies, a technology control that can automatically change bandwidth selection as needed is beneficial. Only one vendor allows that right now, he says, and that’s Cisco.

“One vendor that can integrate with everything is helpful,” Wheeler points out. The right partner should be able to run modeling tools and import school maps into them and run simulations on where to put access points based on connectivity.

What to have in your toolbox

A bandwidth checker lets school districts log in to their networks to see current bandwidth usage. It allows for tracking a whole month, certain days, times and even schools.

Modeling tools allow you to import school maps to run simulations on where to locate access points based on connectivity. “We put an actual building map inside the tool and walk the school with the simulator,” explains John Brooks, director of technical services at Insight. “It does placement of where the best places are to put access points.”

Calculating bandwidth

The amount of bandwidth required on a network fluctuates throughout the day, so it’s important that your network is adaptable to provide the best performance. Just because a product says it provides high speed doesn’t necessarily mean it does.

“Testing the environment after hours doesn’t give a realistic picture,” says Duane Wheeler, senior architect for the networking practice at Insight. Instead, he suggests testing it when it’s at peak — when classrooms are using technology, security cameras are running, and heating and/or cooling systems are on.

This article originally appeared in Volume 1, Issue 2 of Technically digital magazine.