Even today, cash-strapped school districts are struggling to implement one-to-one computing initiatives. Meanwhile, many students show up for class with more computing power in their pockets than an entire lab full of aging PCs.
Like a growing number of districts around the country, Illinois’ PORTA Community Unit School District #202 saw this reality as an opportunity. (The district is so named because it draws students from the towns of Petersburg, Oakford, Rock Creek, Tallula and Atterberry.) By embracing a “bring your own device” (BYOD) strategy, district officials could achieve a one-to-one student-to-computer ratio — at a fraction of what it might otherwise cost.
“Everything students do revolves around some kind of technology, and the majority of them live on their cell phones,” says Technology Coordinator Jared Lynn, who runs PORTA’s IT department single-handedly. “The challenge was figuring out how to engage this technology in the classroom in a productive way.
The district needed a game plan to put some sort of electronic device into the hands of every student.” Unfortunately, the district’s wireless network wasn’t equipped to support the personal mobile devices of 1,100 students across four schools. “We didn’t have the infrastructure,” says Lynn, who describes the old network as an assortment of parts he’d purchased from the local big-box technology store and configured himself. To accommodate the extra traffic, the network needed a “complete overhaul,” he says. “Every single switch had to be replaced.”
In 2011, Lynn ripped out PORTA’s old Wi-Fi equipment and replaced it with 50 Cisco Systems Aironet 1140 Series Access Points, which answer to a Cisco 5500 Series Wireless Controller. But he didn’t have the time or expertise to roll out an entire network alone, so he worked with CDW•G to map out the best locations for the APs and to segment the network into separate virtual local area networks for the staff and students.
“Give me two years, and I’d have been able to do it myself,” Lynn says. “But I knew it would be done faster and more professionally if we hired CDW•G services to help.”
One of the problems with do-it-yourself networks is that they quickly become unmanageable. Like PORTA, the Shenandoah Community School District had a DIY wireless network that wasn’t meeting the needs of its more than 1,000 students.
“We had a couple of access points in each classroom and two or three in each library, but they weren’t managed at all,” says Jason Schuett, technology coordinator for the three-school district in southwestern Iowa. “You could have 25 laptops in a room with two APs, and 23 would be connected to one AP and the other two would be connected to the other AP. Those two would be zipping along, but the other 23 were so slow that students couldn’t do anything. We didn’t have any way to tell machines which AP to connect to. It was a nightmare.”
This led Schuett to upgrade the high school’s network using an Aruba Networks 3600 mobility controller and 21 Aruba AP-105 access points. The solutions allow him to manage bandwidth demands in more intelligent ways, he says. “With Aruba, you can pull up a map and see where there’s overlap or dead zones, then move the APs to get better coverage,” he explains. “If, for some reason, one AP drops off the network, the other APs can communicate with each other and pump up their signal strength to cover that area.”
Credit: Bryce Bridges
The wireless upgrade project also included Allied Telesis Power over Ethernet switches, so Schuett wouldn’t have to run electrical wiring to the ceiling-mounted APs, and an Aruba RAP-2WG remote access point, which allows him to access the school’s Wi-Fi network and troubleshoot problems from home or while traveling.
Beyond beefing up the wireless LAN, preparing for an influx of student-owned devices comes with its own unique challenges.
Significantly increased bandwidth demands are just the beginning. According to Lynn, PORTA upgraded to a 20-megabits-per-second Internet pipe in 2010, but he anticipates needing more bandwidth soon. Schuett says Shenandoah CSD uses a 15Mbps pipe but is planning to upgrade to 25Mbps — the fastest data transfer rate his Internet service provider can deliver.
Managing security is another concern. Mobile devices are notorious vectors for malware to infiltrate an otherwise secure network, so IT departments need to create separate networks for students that allow them to access the Internet and nothing else.
Jay Blackman, director of information and educational technology for Tri-Creek School Corp., a five-school district in Lowell, Ind., says his wireless network hasn’t encountered a lot of problems with malware. The key, he says, is to create a wide buffer between the student network and the network used by administrators, teachers and staff.
“Our network administrators have set up multiple levels of protection for our student domains,” Blackman explains. “We have firewalls at two levels. Nothing the students do hits any of our internal servers. They just get a Dynamic Configuration Host Protocol and a Domain Name System, and that’s it. They’re getting in, hitting the content filter and getting out.”
75% of 12- to 17-year-olds own cell phones
SOURCE: Social Media & Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults (Pew Internet & American Life Project, February 2010)
A thornier issue is how to moderate student behavior when they’re using their own devices at school. The key is folding technology use into the school’s classroom management and disciplinary procedures, Blackman says.
“At a high level, we have filtering in place to make sure that what the kids are doing isn’t illegal or inappropriate,” he says. “But the biggest factor is policy. You need to set clear policies addressing the expectations involved in bringing your own mobile device to school. We make it clear to students that using Facebook is probably not appropriate at this time, although that may change down the line. Our expectations and our policies say they shouldn’t, and most students respect that.”
It’s not hard to convince students it’s OK to use their smartphones in class. Persuading skeptical school board members, reluctant educators and wary parents can be a different story, however.
Lynn convinced PORTA administrators that they could pay for a new Wi-Fi network by simultaneously moving from traditional phone lines to a Voice over IP system. He calculates that switching to VoIP will save the district $1,500 a month — more than covering the cost of the network.
The success of a BYOD program also depends on getting teachers up to speed, says Dr. Richard Hezel, president and CEO of the educational consulting firm Hezel Associates. “If teachers aren’t savvy about the devices, they’re probably not going to get the students to use them much.”
The biggest barrier may be overcoming traditional notions that mobile devices are good only for non-educational purposes, says Beverly Miller, chief technology officer for Greeneville City Schools, a six-school district in northeastern Tennessee.
“The first thing educators have to do is accept that they can’t control this,” she says. “We may think we have control over cell phones and other portable devices, but students will bring the devices anyway. They’ll either use them productively in the open or sneak off somewhere and use them inappropriately. Educating them in how to use such devices appropriately is not only something we should do, but something we must do.”