Jun 16 2009

Infrastructure - The Highway to 21st Century Learning

Note: This article is one in a series featuring Eagle County Schools in Colorado and their efforts and visions about how to effectively create a 21st century learning experience.

In real estate, the value of a property can be determined in three words: location, location, and location. When discussing the importance of technology and the resulting learning systems that are created, one must understand the importance of these three words: infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure.

To deliver state-of-the-art instruction and global access to information in a safe yet compelling environment, a robust system must be designed and deployed to deliver the capabilities needed for 21st century learning. The following systems represent some of the capabilities we have built into our infrastructure in the Eagle County School (ECS) District in Eagle, Colo.

LAN/WAN Capabilities

ECS began moving towards a 21st century infrastructure environment by conducting an extensive technology audit conducted by an independent third party. This autonomous survey will give your district an unbiased observation of current capabilities. Often the existing stakeholders are too vested in the systems to view the district’s actual needs or excesses.

After the ECS audit, the capability of the district’s LAN/WAN services were increased tenfold giving the district the necessary backbone to access global information resources. It provides the needed network speed to facilitate real-time collaborations with others around the world.

Increase in network speed is the single most important component a district must address when attempting to move into new learning environments. The increase in speed can actually save the district money. All phones in the district are now VoIP using the same data network. VoIP provides better service at a lower cost all while maximizing the district’s bandwidth investment. The network infrastructure also supports Power over Ethernet, enabling the installation of security cameras without the need for additional electrical work at each camera location. As it turns out in ECS, the money spent in LAN/WAN resulted in being one of the district’s best investments.

Server Virtualization

To provide better customer service and promote a more robust learning environment, ECS selected VMware and deployed server virtualization to increase network efficiency while saving costs over the traditional server configuration models. Virtualization is a proven software technology that is rapidly transforming the IT landscape and fundamentally changing the way that districts maximize their hardware investments. Virtualization lets you run multiple virtual machines on a single physical machine, sharing the resources of that single computer across multiple environments. Different virtual machines can run different operating systems and multiple applications on the same physical computer.

As important as servers are to the overall infrastructure, backup solutions must be maintained and preformed on a daily basis. This can be a daunting and time-consuming task without the right product and procedures in place. ECS uses backup and recovery solutions to identify redundant data at the source, therefore minimizing backup data before it is sent over the LAN/WAN. With this technology, ECS can achieve new levels of data reduction and enable fast, secure backup for our VMware environments, remote school servers and other backup needs. This all helps ECS to reduce backup time, growth of secondary storage and network utilization. 

Network Security

In 2000, the U.S. Congress ratified the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which focused primarily on preventing access to pornography sites. But since then, content delivery mechanisms and Internet access have become more complex. Today, content filtering is not just about preventing access to inappropriate websites; students and educators must be able to trust the Internet in order to take advantage of the tremendous potential it holds for learning.

So how does ECS build the 21St century learning environment while maintaining a safe and productive environment for all students? The answer is using behavior- and signature-based intrusion prevention and intelligent traffic management with proprietary web proxy and content control technology. This technology identifies and immediately blocks inappropriate behavior while facilitating the flow of good traffic and content to ensure educational requirements are prioritized. Providing levels of access granted by users’ log-in credentials is another way to maintain a safe environment. For examples, teachers will have access to such sites as YouTube while students will be blocked. This will permit a greater use of web resources as teachers construct new lessons utilizing the 21St century lesson design frameworks.

Enterprise-wide Software Solutions

With the previously mentioned systems in place, ECS is now ready to move into the next generation of computing called “cloud computing.” Cloud computing is a style of computing in which scalable and often virtualized resources are provided as a service over the Internet. Soon ECS users will have access to e-mail, word processors, presentation software and calendar capabilities, all of which will be Internet based.

These cloud computing software applications are accessed online from a web browser, while the software and data are stored on the servers elsewhere. The term “cloud” is used as a metaphor for the Internet, based on how the Internet is depicted in computer network diagrams and is an abstraction for the complex infrastructure it conceals.

ECS will be piloting several projects using selected netbooks for access into the cloud applications. This concept holds tremendous promise for the way the district will do business in the future and for the way our students learn in preparation for living and working in the 21St century.

The Infrastructure Payoff

The most important technology decision a district can make is investing in infrastructure. Many of the systems described here are essential for ECS Learning Services to deliver on their promise for an education relevant to children’s educational needs. Many of the systems not only enable innovative learning to take place, but actually save the district money at the same time.

You cannot cut corners in this area. It is essential that proper planning take place starting with a complete and unbiased technology audit. Then, form partnerships with the appropriate community telecommunications providers, obtain support from learning services and professional development departments, and gather support from board and community members. All are stakeholders who need to be onboard with your infrastructure vision for the future. You will need to form this coalition in order to make these critical systems become a reality in your district.

John Kuglin is the CIO for ECS and an international consultant available for presentations. Visit www.kuglin.com for information.