Making Wi-Fi Work

Whether computers are in a lab, in the classroom or in students’ hands, districts are turning to wireless networks to help integrate technology into education. With this decision comes the need not only for the right equipment and space, but also concerns about bandwidth and security issues, as well as making sure a diverse team helps make decisions in new and retrofit situations.

Partnering for Success
“Infrastructure clearly is the priority when you’re doing either retrofitting or new building — trying to be predictive today as to what the trends in technology will be years later down the line,” explains John Pellettiere, director of K-12 education for CDW-G. “Facilities and IT have the challenge to try and look in the crystal ball to find out what the future will hold.”

And when schools go wireless, Pellettiere suggests the best way to plan for the needs of the district now and into the future is to have both facilities directors and IT directors working together in the planning process. He cites a recent meeting with a facilities director and an IT director in California, where the wrong cabling was specified for two new high school projects and would have severely hampered bandwidth.

Over the past 10 years, technology, security and communications have converged and now mostly reside in the data center. Pellettiere says the most successful integrations of wireless technology in schools happen where “leadership recognize that convergence and are taking the appropriate steps to plan and share best practices across both groups.”

Assessing Needs
While new school projects require predictive decision-making, retrofitting schools with Wi-Fi requires an assessment of the current state of the building and what the district wants to do. “From an assessment perspective, we have to understand, whether it be the wireless assessment and the networking assessment, as to where you’re at today, what you do have, what you are looking to accomplish, so that the plan that you go out to execute meets those needs for the school,” says Pellettiere.

There are more chances for problems that will need corrected down the line when the assessment isn’t prioritized, if it’s done in a rush or it’s done in a vacuum where facilities and IT work without each other. Pellettiere adds, “There’s nothing more frustrating to a teacher or a student that they get all this new technology — they get everything in their classroom — and it doesn’t work. The network wasn’t built out with enough bandwidth, or it’s slow or it doesn’t work… The teachers and the students get frustrated and put the technology to the side and don’t use it.”

The prevailing trend in wireless use is BYOD, or bring your own device. While it has been on the forefront for a few years, only recently are some schools taking steps to enable students to use their own devices (iPads, iPods, netbooks, other tablets or even smartphones) in classrooms in response to budget cuts and the need to do more with less. “If the school doesn’t have the availability to take budget to support the computers, if the students were to bring it in, they’re re-allocating their funding to more of a model for the BYOD,” Pellettiere explains.

Despite the upside of students providing their own technology, it does have drawbacks. “It opens up questions around what the network looks like. How do you separate your VLANs to assure that there aren’t security breaches or that you minimize your opportunity for security breaches?”

As well as with security questions, BYOD also pushes schools towards virtualization. “If you’re going to have the BYOD, I’ve got different devices out there, so you’re starting to see the virtualization practice really get put into play; whereas I’m not pushing as much over the network anymore, as I bring in my device, I’m using a thin client application on that unit. I’m not using as much bandwidth on the network.” This also means that the IT director or CIO can manage applications and what students have access to centrally through the data center.

Securing Data

Schools all approach Wi-Fi and security in different ways. The hazards are all similar: malware, viruses, breaches, new devices. Segmenting the network and putting students on their own VLAN makes sure they can’t access places on the network that they shouldn’t go.

“Some schools are locking down systems completely to where the students have access to only a couple of different applications. Other schools put out acceptable use policies and put the expectation on both the parents and the students of how they leverage the technology and where they end up going during class time with the system,” says Pellettiere. Each security solution will depend on the district and how they view the best way to handle student access on Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi at Work

Matt Nelson, technology coordinator for Waverly Shell Rock Community School District, handles seven buildings in northeastern Iowa. All of their buildings are outfitted with wireless access available throughout the buildings, from a new middle school building built with Wi-Fi access in mind to the impending retrofit of the high school.

“There’s a private network that we put student and teacher devices on, but then we also have a public network that, if somebody comes in, they sign on to and that gets them Internet access separated from our internal network for security purposes,” Nelson explains.

The devices using this network vary from building to building, but the middle school, and next year the high school, has a one-to-one iPad program. Currently, the majority of the devices using Wi-Fi are student-brought and laptops. In the grade school buildings, teachers also have iPads.

What Nelson describes as “a rare opportunity in the education world,” the middle school is a brand-new facility built from the ground up with the one-to-one iPad program in mind. “We were able to plan for this when we built it,” he says. When the program is brought to the high school though, it will be a retrofit situation. “When we bring it up to our high school,” Nelson explains, “which was built in 1960, we will spend this summer figuring how to route cables around to get enough access points to get enough coverage for a one-to-one up here. That will be a lot bigger task.”

Nelson plans to stick with their current hardware provider, Aruba, and eventually go district-wide with them so that it is managed. “Everything that we have now is unmanaged wireless access points; we want to go all managed since we’re doing so much with it now,” he says. “Aruba has a guy that we give them maps of our building, we tell them, ‘Look, we’re doing one-to-one iPads.’ And they say, ‘Okay, that’s this kind of coverage,’ and they show us where the access points need to be located, so we get enough coverage for what we want to do.”

As the district expands their wireless use, security does continue to be a concern. “I know there’s people that use our public Wi-Fi because I can see them logged in after school hours,” Nelson points out. “We haven’t had any issues where I felt someone was trying to hack us by using that and get on our network. We haven’t seen that happen yet, but it’s certainly possible.” Eventually the public access may need a password or authentication at some point.

Despite the openness of the district’s public Wi-Fi, anyone on the internal network does need a password. “We can see where students are going on the iPads when they’re internal at the school district — and teachers also. Basically every wireless device has to authenticate to be on our internal network.”  

Christine Beitenhaus is an Ohio-based writer with experience in educational and architectural topics.