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Schools and universities are seeing the value in providing Internet access to students but few consider the ramifications of an unrestricted and improperly managed network, writes MATTHEW BARKER.

The increase in mobility is paving the way for the #GenMobile classroom, which takes full advantage of digital learning and collaboration.

#GenMobile are technology savvy and have grown up using mobile devices to play, read, stay connected and organise their lives. It’s not surprising that they would want to use these tools to learn too – and schools should enable this. When planning the next-generation classroom around #GenMobile, IT managers must create environments that support digital learning and emerging technology.

Digital learning is facilitated through content-rich curriculums that integrate multimedia platforms such as gaming and video applications. Interactive e-books will replace traditional textbooks and will download content on demand, enabling the standardisation of content across all grades, in every school. New tools such as Apple TV and Google Hangouts allow teachers to pre-record lessons that can be accessed by a child who stayed home because he was sick. That same lesson can be stored for student revision or replayed to thousands of learners anywhere in the country. Social media and audio-visual platforms will add a new dimension to teaching, bringing lessons to life and allowing teachers and students to collaborate and communicate.

This new education era is being fuelled by the mobility movement of #GenMobile. For example, BYOD initiatives are now becoming more popular in schools and universities than wired computer labs, which are no longer feasible as they are unable to provide access in locations such as sports fields. When setting up an education network, IT managers should consider collaboration, education and voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) access, while maintaining security and reducing infrastructure costs. The next-generation classroom network should be simple to manage, secure, smart and stable – what we refer to as the four S’s.

Smart

School and university networks should enable collaboration between students, teachers and parents. Improved communication means parents will have instant access to information on their children’s performance, class attendance and important news. The connection must be able to accommodate bandwidth-hungry applications and ensure the optimal performance of these applications. It should also prioritise the performance of learning applications over other applications like social media.

Yet it should be smart enough to recognise different types of traffic and assign the highest priority to the most important traffic, such as allowing YouTube access in the audio-visual class, but blocking access in the English class next door, unless the teacher specifically unblocks it for a portion of the lesson. The network should support online examinations by only allowing access to the test document and blocking access to other applications and programmes on the student’s device.

Simple

Realistically, the network should be able to support at least 100 connected devices per classroom – three to four devices per student, teacher devices, wireless printers and other wireless gadgets. It should also be strong enough to support high-traffic areas like school halls and sports fields. Ordinarily, this would present a massive IT headache, but it can be easily managed through role-based access. This gives users a different connectivity experience depending on who they are, what device they’re using and where they are accessing the network from. The University of the Free State noticed a massive improvement in student and staff satisfaction after overhauling its network to wirelessly carry more than 30 000 users in 150 buildings through over 1 500 access points.

The university found it was more cost-effective to supply the infrastructure and let students bring their own devices than to set up computer labs.

Ideally, education networks should be based on a zero-touch IT model, requiring little, if any, IT involvement. They should have self-service capabilities that simplify device onboarding with automated self-enrolment. This means that, when a new device connects to the network, the user will be taken through a simple set-up process. Network access privileges will then be granted to the user based on his or her role (teacher, student, parent, etc.), device type and location. For example, a Grade 8 student will not have access to Grade 12 content, and can view streaming video in the audio-visual classroom, but not on the sports field. This is easily achieved if there is complete visibility of the network, providing information on anything that is affecting network service quality.

Secure

Often, universities and schools don’t realise that they are responsible for everything that happens on their networks. If a child accesses inappropriate content or uploads a bullying video, for example, the school will be legally liable. It is therefore critical that the network is properly secured – and firewalls aren’t sufficient. Again, this is where role-based access and visibility plays a big part. Controlling what content, applications and services a user can access is key, as is knowing who is connecting to the network, from where and at what time of day.

Stable

Education network connections must be reliable and robust enough to handle an influx of devices. Bad connections should not disrupt the learning experience, which may cause frustration and prompt a return to old teaching methods. The network should provide a seamless experience between access points by routing traffic to the best-performing access point based on the needs of the user. Some challenges stand in the way of achieving the smart, simple, secure, stable education network, the biggest being getting broadband connectivity into schools and the high costs associated with this. Poor-quality networks, a lack of education around smart networks, an immature approach to technology in schools and a lack of access to devices by learners also influence roll out.

Choosing the right partner, who understands where education is going, has experience in the field and is aware of the pitfalls of providing access, will relieve some of the burden. It’s not a case of if the #GenMobile classroom will become a reality, but when. With proper planning, sufficient and reliable infrastructure and a competent partner, schools and universities can provide safe, content-rich environments that enhance learning and improve relationships between teachers, pupils and parents. Key to this is in understanding that education networks involve a lot more than simply providing Internet access. They’re about smartly managing the mobile demand and transforming the learning landscape.

* Matthew Barker, regional manager for Sub-Saharan Africa at Aruba Networks

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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