Preparing K-12 Schools for the Wireless Onslaught

Colleges and universities have long had to deal with students bringing all sorts of devices to campus, and wanting to connect to the campus network – usually wirelessly. “Colleges were the original bring your own device test bed,” says Chris Williams, a systems engineer with Carousel Industries.

Well now the movement is headed downstream to K-12 schools. Consider what’s happening at Burlington High School in Burlington, Mass. As a story from the Burlington Union explains:

Under the guidance of the schools’ Educational Technology Team (ETT), a five-year plan started this fall when every student at BHS received an Apple iPad to use for classes, research and studying. Approximately, 1,200 iPads were distributed.
The plan, including the distribution of iPads at the high school, is part of a town-wide technology plan, funded by a $1.5 million budget, said Larkin. Seventeen municipal buildings, plus Burlington’s six public schools will ultimately be wireless.
At a recent School Committee meeting, Superintendent Eric Conti said the Burlington High School 1:1 Initiative, several years in the making, is not just about giving students technology devices, but is, in fact, “about improving instruction.”

The Burlington initiative mimics what Williams is seeing in the K-12 market, where he says many schools are looking to implement similar 1:1 initiatives. In so doing, however, they may dramatically increase demand for wireless network bandwidth. “They need a wireless connection to get outbound connectivity from any of these tablets because they don’t have Ethernet ports,” he notes. Given that, Williams offers some advice for schools as they consider increasing use of tablets or laptops.

Schools Should Consider Wireless Client Density

If a school plans to have each student using a tablet or laptop, it’ll take planning to ensure appropriate bandwidth is available. “If everyone is streaming high-def video from the Discovery Channel or doing video chat across the world, you need a wireless network that’ll support that much load,” Williams says.

That means ensuring wireless access points (APs) aren’t overloaded. A rule of thumb is to have no more than 25 or 30 users sharing a single AP. Also keep in mind that APs give each user the same window of time to transmit data, to ensure fairness. So the more people who are connected to the same AP, the less time each will get. Keep in mind also that users with the latest wireless adapters, 802.11n, will be able to transmit at 450M bps when it’s their turn while those with older 802.11b adapters will be stuck at 11M.

Conduct a site walk-through

The biggest issue that Carousel sees when implementing wireless LANs in schools is that the building are often not conducive to wireless, Williams says. WiFi signals have a difficult time passing through concrete walls that are reinforced with rebar, which are common in school buildings.

“It’s important to do a site walk-through before you deploy,” he says. “Based on our experience, we could tell if you need an AP in every classroom because you can’t bleed signals through the walls.”

Plan for wireless device management

Schools also need to plan for device management, especially if they’re going to support a mix of school-issued and student-owned devices. In such a case, they may want to limit what resources the student-owned devices can access as compared to the school-issued ones, which means the school needs a way to identify the device, a topic we’ve covered previously.

A mobile device management (MDM) tool can also help you ensure that end points have the proper security on board before you let them onto the school network. If a device doesn’t have up to date antivirus software, for example, the MDM system can ensure it gets remediated before it can infect the network. Aruba, for example, sells the ClearPass Access Management system which ensures end point security.

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