Staying in Touch

As a district administrator of what may be dozens of schools, you are likely responsible for the technology demands of many different groups. Your faculty and staff need access to the Internet and remote capabilities while they are away at conferences around the country; your students and teachers want to use video streaming in the classroom to watch a live frog dissection from another school; and your IT director wants to access the network at any time to install updates. While some people may think those types of concerns are reserved for IT departments of Fortune 500 companies, administrators know that these are the everyday network challenges faced by today's school districts.

The good news is that school administrators don’t need the equivalent of corporate IT staff at a Fortune 500 company to get the job done. As technology becomes more important in K-12 education, you’re not only planning for the needs of today, but also trying to predict the needs of tomorrow. The days are long gone when "technology in the schools" meant a few computers in the library. Technology and connectivity tools are now integrated into every curriculum, classroom, and lesson, and that integration brings opportunities and challenges.

With this proliferation of technology and tools, administrators are challenged to design the latest technology plans and construct advanced communications networks in order to offer students, faculty, and staff access to the most reliable and secure technology possible within a specified budget. In my role with Qwest’s Government and Education Solutions team, I have the opportunity to talk to many administrators who are excited about the possibilities, but are also looking at the risk-reward equation with their networks.

As I talk through the issues with different school districts across the country, it's clear that they are looking for technology and networking providers with expertise in developing, planning, monitoring, building, and implementing high-bandwidth communications networks that are safe, reliable, and cost-effective. At the same time that they look holistically at all of those networking elements, there are two topic areas that keep rising to the surface from a trend perspective: 1) How do you fund new networking solutions?; and 2) How do you keep the networks safe and secure, even in a disaster?

When it comes to funding, it is important to keep in mind that there are tools to help you make sure your district has affordable access to the latest and greatest technology. One of the leading federally funded programs is the federal E-Rate program — the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund.

The program provides discounts to assist U.S. schools and libraries in obtaining affordable communications access. The Schools and Libraries Program supports connectivity for communications using telecommunications services and/or the Internet. A school or library may request funding under four categories of service: telecommunications services, Internet access, internal connections, and basic maintenance of internal connections.

One of the most important things you can do in evaluating a communications provider is to look for one that is willing to be a true team member. A communications provider that works with you as a partner will assist your district in finding appropriate funding for your network projects, while helping to solve your school’s communications problems and providing around-the-clock responsiveness to your network needs. Your "provider partner" will also work with you on a daily basis to design a long-term solution and make sure that you can meet bandwidth needs, not only now but 10 or 20 years into the future.

As with many organizations today, school districts are rapidly adopting new online, self-service applications for students and faculty to add convenience and meet education needs. More and more schools need access to multiple applications consuming bandwidth at an ever-increasing rate. Network solutions today need to be flexible enough to meet current bandwidth needs, while connecting multiple locations in your local area for a relatively low cost. Many districts are starting to use Ethernet technology as a way to achieve this connectivity in a cost-effective way, but many districts still remain concerned about the potential budget impacts of the latest in networking solutions.

To offer an example of how federal funding can assist in the deployment of advanced technology, Highline School District in Burien, WA, just announced it was going to deliver a comprehensive network that connects and supports its 17,000 students as well as faculty and staff using super-high-speed optical Ethernet services in 35 locations. The district increased access to advanced applications including real-time streaming video sessions and multi-location information sharing by adding bandwidth. This network will enable “virtual classrooms,” providing better use of district resources and improving student access to advanced curriculum.

Highline School District is using funds from the federal E-Rate program for a majority of its telecommunications services, making this cutting-edge technology possible and affordable.

In addition to funding, many administrators are concerned about the "security" of their networks. Many school officials consider security, business continuity planning, and disaster-recovery solutions as they go through the process of choosing a high-speed platform to connect district locations. With a variety of technologies available, you probably want to choose a platform that supports both secure online services and advanced business-continuity/disaster-recovery capabilities.

Simply put, a business continuity plan can be thought of as a strategy you and your colleagues put in place that gives them the ability to function in a human-caused or natural disaster. Disaster recovery is the ability to quickly recover the network and continue operations after an unplanned event or disaster actually occurs.

Continuing to use the Highline School District as an example, reliability and connectivity were two of IT Director Mark Finstrom’s main goals with a network upgrade. The district has approximately 18 elementary schools, four middle schools, and 17 high schools and alternative schools, and each location needed access to the network from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. As the director of IT, Finstrom also needed the ability to update and get into his systems at any time. The network needed to be up and running all the time. The district has extensive business continuity plans and disaster recovery — from phones in every classroom to highly redundant and secondary networks. Basically, the school district has implemented a system or strategy to ensure school administrators can use the always-on network to distribute key information to students, faculty, and staff in the instance of a disaster or emergency.

Based on continuity best practices deployed by Highline and other districts across the country, the following are key considerations for you as you evaluate and implement next-generation communications solutions.

•    Business continuity and disaster recovery services — key staff members can be available online and in contact with students, faculty, and the community in case of an emergency or disaster. Voice and data systems can be routed to home offices, wireless phones, and alternate computer labs within a specified school to keep school administrators up-and-running. You will probably want to work closely with your network provider(s) to build plans, and update/monitor them regularly.

•    Network services — you want choose high-bandwidth connectivity with the ability to prioritize traffic and routing. For example, mission-critical emergency communications should be a number one priority. Priority two might be voice communications, and priority three would be regular data. The solution should also include different routing mechanisms, so in the case of an outage, traffic has another way to go to ensure network reliability.

•    Security — oftentimes, your district doesn’t have the dedicated IT staff to protect school networks from the everyday threats that could potentially damage the network. It’s important that security systems are easy to use, easy to implement, and provide a variety of protection to the school site, hardware, and network. Whether it’s defending the network from internal or external threats or protecting student and faculty information, having a third-party partner managing network security for you keeps schools focused on students.

At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember about designing and constructing an advanced communications network is that you are not alone. From funded discounts provided by the federal government to network providers that provide expert insight in developing and protecting communications networks, you have a variety of tools available to be able to deploy network solutions that are an appropriate fit for your district's needs.

Sharon Montgomery serves as Qwest vice president of Government and Education Solutions and explores top technology priorities in regards to planning, implementing, and monitoring high-speed communications networks for school district administrators nationwide. She can be reached at [email protected]