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Is wireless interfering with your BYOD plans?

issue_54p26You’ve been SNUP-ed, so now it’s full steam ahead with your BYOD roll-out, right? Well, possibly but before launching into it, determine the capability of the network and ensure it’s up to both the challenge and the expectations, writes David Kinane.

Wi-Fi is a game changer for education. Quite simply, it offers unparalleled opportunities and those that have wireless capability in their classrooms should now be making the most of the learning potential it offers.

The mobility that this technology enables can facilitate a flexible approach to e-learning and releases students and teachers from the restrictions of cables, desks and even the classroom. That’s assuming, of course, the network has the capacity to meet the demands placed upon it.

The SNUP wireless programme that’s currently being rolled out in New Zealand schools follows a broadly similar template. A school can expect to get, in most instances, one wireless access point (AP) for every two classrooms. The specifications for the AP are that it’s IEEE 802.11n standard, delivering content to clients at 400 megabits per second (mbps).

Coping with potential demand
It’s a truism that new technology inspires innovation, just look at the impact that tablets have had upon education. Now, thanks to SNUP, many schools have a Wi-Fi system and they’re able to consider implementing a BYOD programme. However, before launching into such an initiative, schools need to consider whether their SNUP-funded wireless solution is able to cope with the potential demand that a BYOD roll out will put upon it.

Wi-Fi is a fickle beast and there are many things that can interfere with a user’s ability to transmit and receive content effectively. Solid objects, such as classroom walls, can impact on signal strength, especially if there’s a lot of metal in the wall or it’s made of brick. Indeed, lots of people can impact on the performance of Wi-Fi as we’re predominantly made up of water – which means we scatter radio waves quite nicely, decreasing the effectiveness of the AP to transmit! These environmental features affect signal strength and the SNUP contractors should have produced heat maps of each classroom to illustrate where the best signal strength is in each teaching space. If you did not get one, go back to them. They have to provide a 20-year warranty on their work. (Check the Ministry’s Standards for Network Upgrades at fizurl.com/standards.)

Potential performance pitfalls
Different manufacturers have developed different technologies to improve signal strength and characteristics of their APs, things like wave bending technology and signal load balancing. The reality is that a school must do research into the capabilities of its Wi-Fi network before launching into BYOD. The key is to know the abilities of the technology installed and to set a minimum standard of device permissible for use in a 1:1 programme. The article ‘Why your Wi-Fi sucks’ (fizurl.com/wifisucks) may be long but it’s more than just an eye-catching headline. It offers information that could help a school understand not only the limitations of the technology but also highlight potential performance pitfalls, before it embarks on any BYOD journey.

Maintaining a connection
Understanding the limitations of an AP is important when you consider a single unit that’s shared between two classrooms may have to cope with up to 60 student devices, two teacher laptops and two wireless projectors. The fact is every classroom will have low signal strength or even dead areas for Wi-Fi. In addition, it may have to manage any other Wi-Fi-capable devices that are in range, like teacher and possibly student phones. APs can have multiple aerials inside of them, yet their ability to transmit is also determined by a mobile device’s ability to receive. For example, a tablet will only have one aerial inside it whereas a laptop can have three, making it more able to maintain a connection in a weak signal area.

What’s more, if a mobile device has a Wi-Fi capability of 802.11g or lower, it will only be able to work at that standard’s maximum rate, which is much less than 400 Mbps. Therefore, the experience of a user with a lower spec device may be poor and slow. And, as IT managers know all too well, user perception does not always reflect the reality and blame is often wrongly attributed. Even more maddeningly, negative perceptions are incredibly difficult to eradicate, even in the face of contrary evidence.

Minimum standard requirements
Finally, if a mobile device has a weak or low transmit capability it may make it difficult for it to be ‘heard’ in the Wi-Fi chatter of a busy classroom, especially if the ability of the AP to evenly distribute bandwidth to all devices equally is not very good (this feature varies widely between AP models). Some devices will ‘oil the squeaky wheel’ by giving the lion’s share of bandwidth to the device that makes the most or strongest requests. The end result being one very satisfied customer and the remainder of the users limping along in the wireless slow lane.

Clearly, BYOD heralds huge learning potential, e-learning integration and pedagogical shift for teachers, students and the wider education world. However, for the transition to BYOD to be as smooth as possible a school really needs to know the capability of the network technology it intends to build its vision upon. Also, it should set minimum standard requirements for the devices being brought in to ensure a positive user experience.

Lastly, if a school plans to use the AP infrastructure at 100 per cent capacity, by 100 per cent of the users for 100 per cent of the time, then anything less than that will be providing a stellar service to the end user.

DAVID KINANE IS A SPECIALIST ICT EDUCATION CONSULTANT AND WRITES FOR INTERFACE MAGAZINE.

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Wi-Fi case studies 

Upgrading Wi-Fi for UFB
St Andrew’s College, Christchurch

In order to fully utilise Ultrafast Broadband (UFB), St Andrew’s College needed ubiquitous wireless access. To achieve this, it had to complete a wide replacement of its network to allow campus-wide access, including to previously ‘dead’ areas. In total, 168 Wi-Fi access points were installed.

“We use CloudPath.net for onboarding and registration of student devices and this uses EAP-TLS certificate-based authentication, providing a very high level of security and management,” said Director of ICT Sam McNeill.

With around 12 terabytes of traffic going through St Andrew’s each month, access points with the highest availability were vital.

“The access points installed are a combination of high-throughput HP MSM460, MSM430 and smaller ‘hotel wireless’ units in the boarding houses, which use MSM317 models, managed by high-availability dual HP MSM760 Wi-Fi controllers.”

The college’s infrastructure manages a combination of student and staff internet traffic, along with offsite backups.

“The upgrade has allowed for significantly more bandwidth to become available to students and in areas of the college where previously wireless internet was not accessible,” added McNeill. “Consequently, laptops and other devices are being used to support the learning in more classrooms”

The decision underlying this advanced network upgrade was influenced by Year 9 students now being required to bring a laptop to school each day. “This will be phased in over the next five years so all secondary school year levels have a device.”

Overarching St Andrew’s wireless upgrade is a focus on digital citizenship and cybersafety.

“Keeping safe online is already part of the Year 10 health curriculum and now Year 9 students are being actively encouraged to make

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Confidence in a managed network
Balmoral School, Auckland

 As part of Balmoral School’s strategic plan, the Auckland school focused on developing a 21st Century learning environment. It began with a BYOD programme, facilitated by a managed wireless network.

“We wanted wireless all the time but not for the features, we just needed it to work,” said Doug Crutch, who manages the school’s IT systems part time. “Before, we only had cable and desktops throughout the school. So, we went out and got some advice to find a system that would work for our primary/intermediate environment.”

Isometric Solutions was contacted to provide a range of options. They recommended a “cost-effective deal”, and Crutch, an active user of education IT forums, did his own research before suggesting the system to the school.

“We decided on a Ruckus system with 10 access points and a ZoneDirector 1000 controller. We put in a couple of VLANs (domains referred to as Virtual Local Area Networks) but we don’t have people watching the network every day. That’s why it was important to get a managed system that just works.”

Access points were mixed models and Balmoral’s latest deployment (soon to be installed) will include the newer 7372 models.

“We’re also about to upgrade to the ZoneDirector 1100,” added Crutch, “which Isometric Solutions provided as part of a bundled deal.”

Also, the company’s support for the Ruckus infrastructure has been “very good”, says Crutch. “They’ve got very current advice and are happy to support us whenever necessary. We’ve not experienced any major wireless outages with the system, just the standard atmospheric stuff.”

As digital citizenship is a key component of Balmoral School’s strategic plan implementation, it has endeavoured to provide students with responsible guidelines on wireless use.

“These include restrictions for students’ digital devices during break and lunch times, whereby they may only use them within the library area, not in classrooms, outside, or any other common areas in the school,” added Crutch.

CASE STUDIES COMPILED BY LEE SUCKLING.

© INTERFACE Magazine, March 2014

Categories: Article, Issue 54

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