Ready or Not

Four must-do’s for building next-gen wi-fi for Common Core and beyond.

GUEST COLUMN | by Kezia Gollapudi

CREDIT Aruba Oyster River School DistrictReady or not, Common Core is here now! If you are a school district getting ready to roll out the Common Core-based Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing, you might easily relate to the palpable nervousness in the air at districts across the country. The nerves are not just about student and teacher readiness for the new online assessments however. They are also about whether districts’ wireless networks will be able to meet the demands the new tests will place on network infrastructures as the primary test-taking devices students use turn from pencil and paper to Chromebooks and iPads.

Of course, while the ability to support online testing is an immediate topic of discussion, Common Core is not just assessments. It’s also about:

  •       Boosting student engagement on tablets and laptops
  •       Enlivening the new curriculum with exciting learning tools
  •       Empowering teachers in technology-rich classrooms
  •       Investing in classrooms without breaking IT budgets

If schools focus on preparing their networks to accommodate the above factors, they will be well prepared to meet the specific demands that testing will involve as well.

Boosting student engagement on tablets and laptops

As schools invest in hundreds of Chromebooks and iPads to transition to Common Core learning, it is important to ensure that students thrive on those devices in the classroom.

Recent surveys* reveal that 87% of today’s students prefer digital textbooks, 38% use social media to collaborate and communicate with teachers and classmates, and 75% play educational games regularly. Engaging this new generation of digital learners in the classroom calls for a seamless learning environment where a classroom full of students can easily and reliably get on their devices and start learning. Bad wireless network performance should not decelerate or interrupt their learning experience.

The first question school districts must ask when preparing for Common Core is whether their current wireless networks are able to support the influx of devices that are coming into their classrooms. Whether they employ a BYOD model or one based on school-issued devices, school districts must ensure their wireless infrastructures deliver the capacity and reliability required to facilitate uninterrupted mobile learning. To do this effectively, school districts should consider deploying gigabit Wi-Fi, with one 802.11ac access point (AP) per classroom. Because Gigabit Wi-Fi is designed to deliver high performance for high-density classrooms, it is well suited to handle increased network traffic as more users, devices and apps connect to classroom Wi-Fi. The result is a robust, always-on network that teachers and students can rely on.

Enliven the new Common Core curriculum with exciting learning tools

Teachers and students are increasingly using educational video and gaming applications to enrich learning. Video-based learning applications like YouTube Education, Netflix, Khan Academy and PBS Video are being integrated into traditional teaching. Even social media tools are being leveraged at middle and high schools to help students and teachers collaborate and communicate.

However, supporting these new applications and tools requires the ability to accommodate bandwidth-hungry applications and new types of traffic on the network as never before. It also requires IT departments to identify and be able to manage all the applications they have running on their networks.

To successfully conduct testing in one classroom while running HD video next door without breaking the network, IT Departments need a reliable network with smart application handling. Granular visibility and control over the applications students are using and how those apps are performing will allow district IT personnel to prioritize critical learning and testing applications over other apps. Today, smart Wi-Fi networks are able to recognize different types of traffic on a network and allow IT to assign the highest priority to more important traffic, while blocking the use of inappropriate apps and applying quality-of-service to delay-sensitive video instruction media.

This level of control over network traffic is especially critical as schools strive towards creating a controlled and predictable online testing environment.

Empower teachers to control technology in their classrooms

Digital classrooms create great opportunities but also new challenges for teachers. Allowing teachers to choose some of their classroom technologies and giving them tools to stay in control of student activity during class can help immensely in classroom management.

For example, a growing number of teachers have begun using tools like AppleTVs and Chromecast to simplify screen sharing and collaboration in their classrooms. However, these tools are consumer devices designed for home use and not for schools, so there are some inherent challenges they present. For example, if each classroom has an AppleTV, how can teachers and students easily recognize which AppleTV they should connect to? Or, what if some teachers want to completely block student access to the tool, or to grant it selectively?

What network managers need is a solution to easily manage these devices on the network by giving policy-based access and visibility to AppleTVs and other shared services to users depending on who they are, where they are and what device they are connecting with.

Another way to empower teachers is by providing them with classroom management tools that ensure students stay on task and are not easily distracted on their mobile devices. Choosing a purpose-built classroom management system from a solution provider who specializes in classroom applications can give teachers greater visibility into and control over how mobile devices are used in their classrooms. It can also allow teachers to view student device screens, co-browse, block apps and keep everyone focused on learning while in the classroom.

Invest in the classroom while staying in control of the budget

Finally, for network managers to invest in classroom technologies without breaking their budget, schools must explore and identify simple and affordable wireless solutions.

One way to build a robust wireless network while strapped for budget and manpower is choosing controllerless Wi-Fi. Controllerless Wi-Fi is comprised of access points with built-in virtual controller capabilities, thus eliminating the need to splurge on a standalone controller appliance. This approach is not only affordable and ideal for limited school budgets, it is also simple to deploy and manage – a key benefit for lean IT staffs. However, it is extremely important to ensure that the controllerless Wi-Fi selected is enterprise-grade and that there is no compromise in performance in exchange for simplicity.

Another smart investment as BYOD becomes a reality in schools is self-service capabilities that reduce IT effort. Students, teachers, staff and guests connecting to the school network with a variety of personal devices creates a tough challenge for IT. By choosing a secure self-service network access solution that simplifies device onboarding with automated self-enrollment, devices can be onboarded and network access privileges can be granted based on user roles, device types and location – all with zero IT involvement.

In summary, smart investment in a next-gen wireless network can allow school districts to not only meet their immediate Common Core network requirements, but also transform the student learning experience as a whole.

*Pearson Mobile Device Survey 2013 & From Chalkboards to Tablets: The Emergence of the K-12 Digital Learner [Project Tomorrow]

Kezia Gollapudi is a product marketing manager at Aruba Networks, a leading designer and provider of Mobility-Defined Networks empowering a new generation of tech-savvy users.

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