7 Points to Consider Before Going Wireless

Thinking about going wireless in your LAN deployment? These best practices show the way.

 Thinking about going wireless in your LAN deployment? These best practices show the way.

Most educators believe moving toward a model of 21st century learning powered by technology will best prepare students to succeed in our global economy. After all, today's students live in a world in which technology provides 24x7 access to information and resources – at home, at school and on the go. For most schools, IT now encompasses far more than computers in the back of classrooms or labs full of desktop machines.

With the rapid adoption of student-owned devices in the school setting, many districts have had to grapple with the dual challenges of providing a robust wireless infrastructure to accom­modate a wide range of mobile devices while still ensuring a safe, secure and managed environment. IT managers tasked with making it happen must sift through a lot of information to determine the best approach. Here are some key points to consider when transitioning your local area network to a robust wireless infrastructure.

1. Vision

What's your school's vision for how the wireless network will be used? It's important to plan for some type of wireless access for students and teachers while also addressing monitoring systems such as safety, security and main­tenance. You also must identify the potential demands on the wireless infra­structure and determine how they will be handled.

The federal government's National Educational Technology Plan recommends that districts ensure that students and educators have adequate broadband access to the Internet and adequate wireless connectivity both inside and outside school. The Keller (Texas) Independent School District, about 40 miles west of Dallas, provides wireless access not only inside and outside district facilities, but also on buses carrying students to and from its 38 schools and to extra­curricular activities.

A clear vision up front will help when designing your wireless infrastructure. If you understand expectations early on, you'll ask the right questions of vendors and potential partners when planning its implementation.

2. Interview

Interview students, staff, parents and any other stakeholders involved to determine which devices and applications will be accessing the wireless network. How many devices will students and teachers be using? It's not uncommon for them to have a notebook computer, as well as an iPod or iPad, and they will expect to have simultaneous wireless access for all of their devices.

Will students be allowed to use personal devices on your wireless network? What types of legacy devices will the district support? What types of applications will be accessible over the wireless network?

In our district, for example, having the ability to access digital content over the wireless network on netbooks, iPods and iPads was deemed essential.

3. Discovery

After you determine the type and number of devices to be deployed, the discovery phase can begin. This is the time when the district technology team researches the various wireless solutions and devices that are currently available. This is also the time to clearly define district expectations for the wireless network and the types of devices that will need to be able to have wireless connectivity.

Consideration should be given to the total number of devices potentially accessing the wireless network at any given time and the types of applications that will be deployed to users' mobile devices. Decisions about security and user access for students, staff and guests must be made during this phase. The ongoing cost of maintenance, management and support for the wireless network also should be determined at this time.

4. Testing

Most vendors will be glad to work with a school's IT staff to set up a test wireless network using a sampling of mobile devices that will be deployed in the production wireless network. Conduct the test using a real-world scenario in which there's a normal level of use.

During this exercise, it's important to monitor how the access points install, how the management software works and how the wireless components integrate with the managed wired network. Note how many devices can successfully attach to a single access point at one time, the average speed of connections and the system's ability to deliver streaming video without freezing or extreme degradation.

Keep the test network functioning until all devices you're planning to use are connected successfully. Remember, technology solutions generally aren't seamless. But through this process, you will learn about the interoperability of the vendor's wireless network with your existing infrastructure and get a feel for the expertise and support the vendor can provide.

5. Site Survey

Although sophisticated tools are now available to assist with the design and positioning of access points, actual functionality may be hampered by each building's composition and infrastructure. Older buildings with brick, concrete or steel construction tend to have reduced wireless signal penetration.

Plan on at least a 10 percent variance in equipment based on site surveys. Specifications can be adjusted after the initial install, when exact usage is determined.

6. Implementation

By the implementation phase, a wireless solution that meets your district's instructional, operational and technical requirements should be evident. A thorough, mutual project plan detailing the responsibilities of the vendor, district technical staff and administrators should be developed before installation begins.

It's helpful to have a district IT representative serve as a liaison between the vendor and district staff to communicate timelines and details of the deployment.

Also, ongoing communication is essential to a wireless infra­structure's successful implementation. Consider creating a website or blog that administrators, teachers and staff can access to obtain timely information about the installation process and to ask questions.

7. Evaluation

Once the wireless infrastructure has been deployed, collect data from stakeholders to evaluate how the wireless solution is being used and whether users are satisfied with its performance. Does the new infrastructure meet your district's stated vision and goals? If not, what improvements can be made?

A managed and robust wireless infrastructure can give your school the flexibility it needs to deliver engaging learning experiences that transform the traditional educational model. With the proper planning, wireless access to network resources won't be a "nice to have" luxury; it will be a "glad to have" reality.

Following Through

Photo credit: Tetra Images/Getty Images

The Keller Independent School District's 2009–2011 Technology Plan called for an expansion of its existing wireless network to provide greater bandwidth for additional wireless technology in all district facilities. The IT department also was challenged to develop and implement a district standard for wireless telecommunications equipment, including (but not limited to) smart­phones, pagers, personal digital assistants and wireless IP phones.

With its upgrade to a wireless LAN completed in time for the 2009–2010 school year, Keller ISD is now able to give its 33,000-plus students the interactive learning experience they need to be successful in the modern world. To learn more about the district's technology initiatives, visit kellerisd.net.

<p>Photo credit: Tetra Images/Getty Images</p>
Oct 20 2010

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