Utilising Managed Wi-Fi Service in Irish Schools

In recent years, success stories of books being swapped for iPads, and e-Portals being used to monitor student performance in Irish schools have been an encouraging step in the right direction for our digital learning landscape. However, aspects of this that often go unreported are the challenges schools face managing their own IT systems such as Wi-Fi and the unknown benefits that schools could realise if they were to embrace a managed Wi-Fi service.

Lecturer giving talk to college class

The Department of Education’s Digital Strategy for Schools 2015 – 2020, states “there should be opportunities for teachers and principals to experiment with the use of new devices and other digital tools with their learners and then to share their experiences across the profession”. A managed Wi-Fi service that is set up to address a school’s requirements from day one can underpin a number of web-based teaching initiatives for years to come.

What is a Managed Wi-Fi service?

The Wi-Fi needs of a school can be compared to those of a hotel. Hotels have large numbers of users with multiple connected devices, they deal with high levels of network traffic and want their guests to have Wi-Fi coverage throughout as much of the building as possible. Traditionally hotels wouldn’t have had an IT staff member on site and would seek out a managed service to take care of Wi-Fi operations end to end.

This allows the provider to take care of SLAs and ensure guaranteed uptime all while taking care of the support needs of hotel management and individual guests.

In a way, schools are in the same position hotels were five years ago. They may know the type of network they want installed and what they want it do, but they may not be equipped to take care of it themselves.

As Russell McQuillan, director at Bitbuzz, a Virgin Media Company, explains, when schools go down the digital route, the first steps they make are the most important.

“A mistake that schools are making is that they are ringing a company to install Wi-Fi and it’s not doing what they want it do. We spend more time scoping out exactly what they want, than the time it takes to make that possible. It’s very easy to set up the service to a school’s needs on the first time. It can be difficult to completely change the service after it’s up and running,” said Russell.

Adjusting with the Learning Curve

One of the biggest differences between the Wi-Fi needs of a school and any other business is that a lot of the end users in a school are minors.

For this reason network security is the most important concern facing schools. It’s very important that students are protected at all times and consider what students can and can’t access on the Internet.

Another factor to consider is that teachers are on the same network as students. Because of this, schools need to be able to prevent any cross contamination of traffic that could occur, e.g. teachers sharing files with each other and a student accidentally receiving it.

Keeping network traffic secure is especially important if a school is considering the implementation of a ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy.

Some schools do want people to bring their own devices to the classroom so the faculty don’t have to deal with the upkeep of hundreds of school-owned tablets. The priority with BYOD is to ensure students’ personal files are never shared across the network to other people.

As Russell explains, part of the role of a Wi-Fi partner offering a managed service is to come up with solutions to these problems that can be adapted when school’s requirements change. It’s not a one size fits all solution, in fact it’s more likely that there are multiple layers of security, bespoke to the school’s needs working simultaneously in order preserve network integrity.

“We can put in numerous different firewalls. There are multiple levels of security and access features we can install. We can even go down to year groups and say ‘this year group can do this on the network and this year group can do that’. People who are age 13 in the school compared to those who are 18 may have different levels of access. This can be done for internal systems, internal documents and with access to the wider Internet,” said Russell.

Young school child using a laptop

Scalability

When a school first sits with a Wi-Fi provider and opens discussions, it’s important that they not only consider their current needs but also how they may change in several years’ time.

In the short term, this could be something like the introduction of a new piece of software that the school has commissioned for launch next year that needs to be integrated into the network somehow. Or, it could be a planned increase of student numbers starting next year that will mean more connected devices on the network.

In the long term both the school and the provider have to consider future trends that could impact the network’s performance if it isn’t built for scalability.

Two examples of these trends are the rise in popularity of video content and the increasing number of smart devices that students will own in the future.

According to the Cisco Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update by 2018, nearly 70% of all data traversing the Internet is going to be video. That is five million years of video crossing the Internet every month.

Thankfully these trends aren’t too hard to predict, with many research companies keeping an eye on the digital landscape in their annual forecasts. Providers who have experience servicing the hotel industry, have seen their clients’ needs change in this way before.

“Traffic demands are changing all the time. Our experience from the hotel sector shows us this. In a 100-room hotel you might once have expected to have 100 devices online. Then look at the same 100-room hotel three years on and it might now have a 1000 devices online at the same time,” said Russell.

He continued, “A university student might bring seven devices with them when they go to university. The more devices online, the more equipment you need to support that.  As devices change and evolve and more things get connected and more things depend on a solid Wi-Fi network, you need to scale up in line with that.“

 

What Support do Schools Need?

With a managed service, support goes far beyond fixing the network in response to an unexpected downtime. As a Virgin Media Company, Wi-Fi provider Bitbuzz is constantly testing and monitoring customer networks and even going as far as to investigate how future devices could impact a customer’s network.

“Say you have a smart phone and you have full coverage, then you get the new model and you walk in the room and suddenly you have no coverage. That’s actually not the fault of the Wi-Fi network, what that is is that the manufacturer has put in a cheaper, weaker radio chip into their newer handsets, but often a Wi-Fi company could get blamed for that. So what we have to do is to be constantly testing new devices that come out and consider how it could affect the service we offer,” Russell said.

In response to these developments, Bitbuzz might install more access points in a school to compensate for the weaker radio chips or further change the network design and look at how to best amplify the Wi-Fi signal to serve students and staff alike.

 

The Future is Bright

As schools further embrace Wi-Fi and smart device-aided learning, there’s good reason to believe that the future is bright. This is partly because of the thousands of glowing screens that could soon be lighting up classrooms across the country.

Russell believes that in the next five years a lot of aspects of day-to-day school life will switch to the tablet. meaning schools will need the best infrastructure in place in order to maintain efficiencies.

“Whether it’s taking attendance, booking lunches, paying for class trips and for keeping parents in the loop as well ‒ it will go towards a stage where parents will be alerted on their devices that the children have been assigned homework and when the assignments are complete they can be signed off digitally by the parents. When children arrive at the school their iPads join the network and parents will get email alerts on their device to confirm attendance.” Said Russell.

Although Ireland is a few years away from every classroom in the country teaching exclusively through digital or web based services, it’s encouraging to know that the necessary infrastructure and managed services exist to assist school’s when they transition.

To learn more about how a managed, end-to-end Wi-Fi could benefit your school contact Bitbuzz.