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Networking in Schools - Accessing technology in the classroom
Mon, 17th Jul 2006
FYI, this story is more than a year old

For the digital native, access to ICT is about keeping skill levels current. Employers expect students to be tech-savvy and students who want a tertiary education need to have an increasing level of ICT knowledge.

Students with conditions such as dyslexia and severe attention deficiencies find that use of ICT can reduce resistance to learning and improve the quality of their learning.

“It empowers the girls. They can get on and complete their assignments without being told what to do. They like technology, I don't know why, but they do,” says Margaret McLeod, principal of Wellington Girls' College.

Leading the charge New Zealand has 2650 schools, one-quarter with rolls of 77 children or less and half have rolls of 150 students or less. There are around 145,000 computers in schools andnaround 36,000 out of the country's 45,000 teachers have taken up the offer of a Ministry of Education-subsidised laptop.

The Ministry spends $60-70 million per year on ICT projects in the primary and secondary sector. This ICT development is driven by a mix of influences, says Ministry of Education senior ICT consultant and former geography teacher Douglas Harré.

“ICT is about supporting learning outcomes and also assisting with the day-to-day administrative work that goes on in schools – the 11 students on Pitt Island School in the Chathams should be able to access the educational opportunities offered by Te Papa or Harvard University, and the principal needs to access the increasing range of professional content that is available online.

The desire of principals and teachers to provide exciting learning experiences for their digitally-minded students is another driver as are Ministry standards for LANs, switching and cabling.

Government funding comes in a variety of forms. The Ministry of Education is currently implementing an $11 million infrastructure upgrade programme for the 300 or so schools with less than 77 students and no networking. These schools receive 80 per cent funding to establish networks, should they choose.

The Ministry provides these schools with Molex Category 6 cabling, Allied Telesis switches, an Acer server with a customised Linux operating system, and associated power equipment and upgrades.

The high costs of providing industry-standards networks – around $600-700 per student – has meant that many smaller schools have struggled financially to deliver systems to support the sort of applications that are being demanded in even the smallest of schools. Ministry bulk buying of cabling and switching and server hardware has significantly reduced costs for participating schools. Additional funding in the last budget round means that this upgrade programme will be extended to larger schools over the next few months.

The Ministry funds schools to build and maintain infrastructure, including data cabling and other ICT equipment through their general property and operations grants. But schools have the autonomy to decide how much, if any, of this budget is spent on ICT.

“We give money to the schools and they decide how to spend it depending on their priorities. If their network is seen to be important they will put money into it. Some may see repainting the gym as the priority at the time,” says Harré.

While the Ministry does not dictate centrally what equipment is to be purchased by schools, it does provide a list of recommended brands for cabling and switches.

Schools still have the freedom to decide if they want to take advantage of this. A good example is Ministry bulk buying of network switches. “The bulk purchasing of switches can reduce costs by up to 50 per cent. That can add up to a multi-million dollar saving for schools,” says Harré.

Typical network architectures The Ministry of Education has written a set of generic network architecture guidelines for schools and is working towards some form of accreditation for cabling and switching installers. “Unfortunately many school networks have been built over time in an ad hoc manner, and are not well designed for growth. Yet schools have great demands – a nine-year-old who is editing a one-gigabyte movie for next week's Grandparents Day doesn't want to know why they can't have gigabit to the desktop – they just know they need to move the fi le from here to there and they want to do it now,” says Harré

Many schools still have daisy-chained hubs or see no value in moving to higher end products. Yet the size of files being moved around schools, whether it is senior art classes using Photoshop or streaming video of Hamlet to desktops in the English block, means that well-designed networks are becoming increasingly important.

Companies such as Allied Telesis and DLink have succeeded in the education sector by providing customised training courses for installers working in the school sector and identifying products that are well-suited to the school market.

The network hierarchy envisaged by the Ministry has an edge or access layer giving the first level of access to the network with terminal device addressing and attachment.

Layer 2 switching, security, and quality of service (QoS) reside in this layer. A second distribution layer sits above this aggregating wiring closets and providing policy enforcement. The use of Layer 3 protocols assists load balancing, fast convergence and scalability. A third core layer is designed to connect servers and allows problems to be detected and resolved. This layer should be fast converging, highly reliable and stable, says the Ministry.

For small schools with fewer than 200 students, needing less than 50 edge ports, the Ministry recommends the combining of the core and distribution layers into a single layer with a Layer 2 manageable gigabit core switch and up to three Layer 2 manageable 10/100Mbit/s access switches. Very small schools may only need one switch.

For medium-sized schools with rolls of between 200 and 500 students and more than 50 edge ports, network performance and priority is an issue as users compete for bandwidth. The architecture is similar to that of a small school except a Layer 2 plus or Layer 3 core switch is typically used. As well, access switches will be more plentiful and powerful and will probably be trunked and stacked.

Large schools with more than 500 students need networks connecting multiple buildings with each other across a high performance switched backbone. A separate distribution layer is added for flexibility and future growth as switching needs increase.

Telecom SchoolZone Telecom provides the largest secure schoolwide area network in New Zealand, assisted by $10 million of Ministry of Education funding that covers half its costs. The network is called SchoolZone and provides internet access, email, hosting of school and student websites as well as videoconferencing. Nine hundred and fifty schools have signed up to SchoolZone. The 250,000 users chew though 4.8 terabytes of data a month. Security is an important feature of this package; 3.2 million viruses were blocked in May 2006 along with 850,000 spam emails. Access to inappropriate websites by users is also a significant challenge. The SchoolZone filtering service blocked access to more than 8.7 million inappropriate websites over the last month. Teachers can override the default blocks if they wish students to access any particular site (so a race hate site may be unblocked for a senior history class researching the Civil Rights movement in the USA during the 1960s).

Around 150 schools are using videoconferencing, brokered nationally through the Ministry of Education videoconferencing bridge service. More than 7000 videoconferencing hours over 3000 different sessions were recorded during May 2006. SchoolZone hosts almost all websites designed by schools and students for free. “With fast upload speeds and synchronisation this service is popular,” says Telecom SchoolZone manager John Mitchell.

However, very large schools using sophisticated web design software have high storage hosting needs. At present Telecom hosting of websites of this kind incurs a charge, and some schools are hosting their websites with other service providers. Telecom is in the process of responding to this competition with a new service that will reduce costs significantly. “This new service will allow PHP and Microsoft extensions and will be available in about six months,” says Mitchell.

Network security With the rate of attacks on networks predicted to intensify, security is important. This is recognised as a key issue by the Ministry of Education which provides Computer Associates' eTrust anti-virus software at no cost to schools. Juniper Networks' security expert Matt Miller predicts the rise of multi-thread attacks on networks from viruses, worms and trojans will continue to be the biggest problem. “The complexity and maliciousness of attacks will become more of a problem,” he says. However, these attacks can be detected by affordable firewall technology featuring intrusion, detection and protection capabilities that provide defence in depth from day one. Vendors say sophisticated, affordable protection is readily available to even the smallest schools. The Ministry of Education currently pays for the provision of Telecom's SchoolZone and Watchdog's firewall and filtering products to any school in New Zealand at no cost to the school. So far around 1700 schools have taken up this service.

Physical security As ICT capacity develops, schools are looking to install networked digital cameras or to replace older analog systems, to improve physical security. Marlborough Boys' College is phasing in the installation of video cameras for the first time. “We installed networked digital cameras to one side of the school and all the vandalism switched to the other side of the school,” says Peter Olliver, the classics teacher who has had responsibility for upgrading the school's ageing network. Perhaps the best case study of the value of networked digital cameras comes from Waimokoia Special Needs School in Auckland. Though small, the school has residential and school facilities for 44 children aged between 7 and 13, and its pupils have significant behavioural and social problems. The school needs to monitor the safety of children and staff, protect staff from allegations of misconduct, control unauthorised entry and exit from the school, and monitor playgrounds, car parks and facilities from misuse from the public.

The school's existing analog system was limited says director of residential services Whiti Harris. “There was no capability for stakeholders to view video data remotely and the school's networking resources couldn't cope with converting the analog data into digital.

The school went with a solution comprising 11 fixed Axis 211 network cameras placed inside the school, one camera in each classroom and in each hallway. All analog cameras outdoors and in the lounges of each residence were replaced with Axis 213 PTZ network cameras that can pan, tilt and zoom over the school IP network. Two wireless Axis 206 network cameras have also been installed, one in the reception area, the other in its recreation room. The Axis network cameras stream live video to an Insite PC, which serves as a high quality server. The desktop holds 50 days of data and has a 300 GB hard drive for the video data and an 80 GB hard drive for the operating system. This amount of backup allows the school to meet the governance requirement to keep eight years of footage and to free up the room dedicated to storing video tapes.

Voice and data systems One of the most pressing needs for schools is voice and data ICT solutions to handle attendance and absenteeism, notification of school events, sports practices and games and the plethora of other information that needs to be communicated accurately between schools and parents and within schools themselves. DownerCommspec presales engineer Hamish Scott says there are similarities in the requirements for schools including the need for absolute reliability of voice and data systems. “Schools with large rolls receive a flood of calls from 8 to 9 o'clock in the morning as parents ring in absentees. The system handling these calls has to be absolutely reliable, but in even the smallest school the system handling these kinds of calls has to be equally dependable,” he says.

Other features of voice and data systems schools have in common include modularity giving the educational facility a solution adaptable to their changing needs and size, on-site mobility through wireless voice solutions giving staff contactability especially in emergencies, ease-of-use so users can take advantage of advanced features without having to attend complicated training courses, and a PC-based management tool enabling the administrator to complete moves, adds and changes which reduces support costs. Integration of the previously separate components of voice and data by standardising on an IP-based phone system supporting digital telephony is attracting interest along with the evolution of ICT programmes with new features like Computer Telephony Integration (CTI), networking security and usage monitoring, he says.

Videoconferencing Videoconferencing is emerging as one of the most versatile ICT applications. Students are now exposed to learning experiences previously unavailable to them like talking with Weta Workshop and Academy Award winner Richard Taylor about the making of the Lord of the Rings and King Kong.

Videoconferencing is extending the curriculum with courses that were unavailable, or only by correspondence. Now schools without specialist teachers can offer these subjects to their students. Videoconferencing also saves time. Olliver says, “Instead of our boys having to travel to and from the girls' school that offers subjects we don't teach, they can now take their lesson from a class room with a video link up.” Video conferencing also allows students moving from other schools to countries to continue classes not offered by their new school.

Aside from stimulating learning videoconferencing is emerging as an important networking tool for teachers to discuss administration and co-ordination between schools and to share ideas.

Scalability and planning Coming to grips with unfamiliar technology, on a limited budget, is a daunting task for teachers and school trustees. Elmar Gailitis, director of AISCORP, a company specialising in technology rollouts, says the issue may be daunting but with good planning, affordable long-term solutions can be developed. “We sit down and talk with teachers and work out what they want. We don't talk about bandwidth or switches. What we talk about is what they want from access to big data files, to videoconferencing, security and ways of making lessons more interesting.” Clark Meister, the director of cabling specialists Online Communications, says “Everything does need to be done at once. What is needed is a good plan; the other bits can be layered in later.