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Spare the bandwidth and spoil the child: quality Wi-Fi fosters quality education

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Spare the bandwidth and spoil the child: quality Wi-Fi fosters quality education

Monday, January 30, 2017

The value of IT in education has long been recognised - maybe too long, beacuse many schools now have outmoded technology that may offer interesting challenges to geeks but little preparation for a 21st century career.  

At first, not everyone welcomed IT into the educational arena. The image of youngsters spending hours at a keyboard instead of romping out of doors was unattractive, and some felt that the Internet would deliver too much information at the cost of the sort of reflective and digestive processes needed to transform information into moral fibre. But today’s schools are expected to provide computer facilities while many positively encourage the use of laptops, tablets and BYOD (bring your own device) programs.

The potential learning benefits of information technology are pretty obvious, but research by Tablets For Schools shows that it can play an equal role in encouraging those more elusive social skills, such as: 

Students becoming more engaged, resulting in better attendance and behaviour.

More student-led and active learning, deeper understanding of subjects and better retention. This was especially helpful for special-needs students who were better able to work at their own pace.

Greater collaboration thanks to the mobility of tablets – students could ask peers, parents and teachers to “look at this” and get help.

There was also cost savings from reduced need for printers and paper to less demand for large computer labs.)

Early adopters of IT in schools – especially rural schools whose educational horizons expanded with links to the worldwide web and pupils in other continents and cultures – quickly discovered these benefits. Soon businesses were being encouraged not to scrap their old PCs but to donate them to schools – a brilliant example of misplaced good intentions, as Nicholas Negroponte explained when launching his One Laptop Per Child project in 2005: if school leavers are increasingly expected to have basic IT skills, they should only be trained on up-to-date systems. As preparation for life, school IT should be ahead of the pack, not lagging behind.

There is a lesson here for all educational IT departments. Many schools, including some early IT adopters, have not upgraded their IT systems since the days of weekly lessons in the computer lab. Wi-Fi networks, when available are often old and out-dated, unable to handle the volume of concurrent users with pupils increasingly bringing smartphones and pads as well as using laptops in class.

A school needs wi-fi on a par with what should be available at a conference venue: because pupils are addicted to high bandwidth multimedia content and a school timetable creates bursty traffic patterns. While laptops typically remain in one location and can be connected with or without wires, handheld wireless devices are used on the go, often have weaker Wi-Fi capabilities and are constantly moved around in different orientations. This calls for something a lot better than an average consumer wi-fi system, as Holland Christian Schools discovered when they tried to solve the problem by adding more and more Apple Airport units. With over 100 of these access points there were problems of interference, lost connections and sluggish performance – plus the labour of managing the network without central control.

The solution for Holland Christian was to go for smart mesh wi-fi. Ruckus access points cost more than Airport but high gain directional antennae mean that fewer provide the same coverage with less contention and, most importantly, simple central control of the entire network saved hours of labour and specialist IT skills. These are among the reasons that Vertel bases its Smartfi managed wi-fi service on Ruckus technology.

With today’s pervasive digital technology, the role of IT in education has diverged: on one hand it has become a specific area of study, but for the broader community it is simply an efficient medium for disseminating educational material and preparing pupils for living in digital society. Today’ sophisticated devices require familiarity, rather than a deep understanding of IT.

The best way to provide this is an easy to use, seamless and reliable wi-fi network that leaves teachers free to teach. So there is a lot to be said for passing the whole wi-fi network challenge to a managed service provider.

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