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Mon, 13th Jun 2016
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By Robert Fensham, national network connectivity manager, Schneider Electric

The completion of the Schools Network Upgrade Project (SNUP) program is an important milestone for New Zealand schools with the capabilities SNUP allows set to revolutionise education in the nation.

Whilst in one sense SNUP was a straight forward subsidy program to upgrade internal data and electrical cabling for state and state-integrated schools, in another it was a ground breaking project, marking the direction of education and forward planning for future ways of living.

In schools, technology is central to the learning and teaching process with devices like tablets, interactive whiteboards and mobile learning becoming quite mainstream in today's environment. These technologies are not only educational devices but have implications beyond the classroom as they are used to inform and shape the curriculum and syllabus.

New Zealand schools are set to increase access to a host of new technologies through the Network for Learning (N4L) project which will deliver a range of managed services, including electronic assessment, online moderation, learning management and video conferencing.

However, technology is only as good as the infrastructure it relies on, and the Ministry of Education saw a need to update and future proof school's internal data and electrical cabling, so students and teachers can fully utilise the technology available to them.

The New Zealand government recently invested heavily in the Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) fibre network to deliver a range of high speed internet options to businesses, schools, hospitals and individuals. Their objective is to provide 97.7 per cent of schools and 99.9 per cent of learners with access to UFB by October of this year.

For the full benefits of the Network for Learning project and UFB to be realised, it was vital that schools have access to an upgraded internal network that can distribute broadband speeds to the devices and wireless access points around the school.

The need for an internal network upgrade was especially important given there are a lot of small schools in New Zealand, with some schools having as few as seven students and one IT staff member to care for all network infrastructure.

SNUP meant all involved state and state-integrated schools received upgrades to core on-site IT infrastructure, such as cabling and wiring, to enable them to access high quality ICT infrastructure. What this has delivered to the over 2,400 schools upgraded is modern internal ICT network cabling for quality and high speed internet access.

As part of the SNUP program Schneider Electric helped replace the copper backbones of the network that ran between school buildings with a high performing fibre upgrade. Whilst copper has been the dominate wiring choice for internet connection, fibre networks are far superior due to a number of reasons, including:

  • Faster transmission
  • Less attenuation – when traveling over a long distance, fibre optic cables experience less signal loss than copper cabling
  • Impervious to electromagnetic interference
  • Fire safe
  • Less maintenance - copper wires are more prone to damage than fibre optic cables are

Schneider Electric also upgraded electrical systems throughout the school to support the ICT infrastructure installation, and supplied other hardware as necessary to take full advantage of the Government's investment in ultra-fast fibre.

At the moment, if a school has a decent network they probably won't immediately notice having an upgrade but with the growing adoption of e-learning and wireless, the pressure on the network is only set to increase. In particular, SNUP infrastructure is the foundation of a number of e-learning and digital fluency initiatives including:

  • The complete wireless refresh in more than 400 schools by Dec 2016
  • Digitisation of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement:
    • By 2018 at least 3 digital examinations
    • subjects online; by 2019 NZQA external
    • moderation service fully online; by 2020
    • NCEA external examinations online (where appropriate);
    • after 2020 move progressively to online exams on demand, anytime, anywhere

All of these initiatives come back to the strength, reliability and efficiency of a school's IT infrastructure. A common misconception is that cloud and the wireless SNUP (WSNUP) program have removed the need for a reliable network. However this is not the case with only 820 schools that were originally upgraded before 2012 with the option for a subsidised upgrade to wireless.

Ultimately SNUP means schools can embrace trends like Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), e-learning and unified communication. Additionally, they're future proofed for upcoming technology which is central to much needed STEM capabilities like coding, electronic circuity and robotics.

By Robert Fensham, national network connectivity manager, Schneider Electric