Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School plans to roll out a one-to-one computing program within the year, says IT Director Michael Loring.
Jul 06 2011

Indispensable Utility

Wireless networks have become an educational must-have at Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School.

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When students and teachers sit down to begin class at Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda, Calif., they ought to be able to fire up their computers in the same immediate, transparent manner in which they turn on the lights, says Michael Loring, IT director at this small Catholic institution of 400 students. "Networking should be a utility, just like electricity or water," he states.

That's soon to be reality at SJND, thanks to the installation of a campuswide wireless network from Cisco Systems. Loring says the new network, which has been in place for about two years, will provide the school with the foundation it needs to enable convenience, flexibility and evolving teaching styles.

Within the next year, the school will roll out a one-to-one computing program so that all students will have access to a notebook or mobile device during class. Teachers are already using interactive whiteboards and are planning to add classroom response systems that equip students with "clickers" so they can participate in quizzes posted by the teacher to the whiteboards. In addition, schools will be able to offer hybrid classes that utilize both face-to-face and online teaching components.

All of that would not be possible without a wireless network, says Loring. "The technology is really a facilitator and gateway to enable us to change teaching methodologies when it's appropriate," he states. "We're not throwing out the way that we've always done it, but we're now able to add ways to engage students and give them a deeper understanding of the material."

In fact, an increasing number of schools are recognizing the flexibility, productivity and pedagogical benefits that wireless networks can offer, says Ray Valdes, a research director with Gartner. "They can be complex, there are security implications that need to be addressed and not all schools in this economic environment are able or willing to make the investment at this time," he says. "But this is the way of the future, and all schools will eventually have to make the move to wireless."

Getting It Right

For SJND, the wireless deployment was important because it is a major expansion of the school's initial wireless network, which could accommodate 15 percent to 20 percent of its students at one time. "It worked okay if you had a few students working over a wide space, but when we put 30 in a room and needed them all to come up immediately, the network couldn't handle it," Loring explains.

With the expansion, the school is looking ahead to a future in which everyone on campus – faculty and students – will need wireless capacity for notebooks, smartphones, desktops and tablet devices.

A key to ensuring the upgrade would provide enough capacity to meet SJND's growing needs was putting pre- and post-sales support at the top of the requirements list. This approach led Loring not only to choose Cisco products but also to ask CDW Advanced Technology Services for help with implementation, including planning and configuration, setting up virtual networks and training. "We had a turnkey solution when they left," Loring says.

The team also took steps to ensure the school overcame its unique challenges: Its classrooms and offices are housed in a mix of old and new buildings, and its campus covers two sides of a public street. The school installed 35 Cisco Aironet 1252G access points – one in every other classroom and several in the hallways outside older classrooms – as well as an Aironet BR1310G outdoor wireless bridge across the street and a Cisco 5508 wireless controller. The latter, used in conjunction with the main router, can seamlessly shift traffic from one AP to the next when demand spikes and can also effectively manage what are essentially virtual networks in each building.

Gauging Demand

How effectively schools plan for demand and coverage issues can make the difference between a robust, reliable, high-performance network and one that frustrates users and IT staff, says Joel Hames, director of technology at Tamalpais Union High School District in Larkspur, Calif.

The percentage of E-Rate recipient schools that provide wireless Internet access in at least one building

SOURCE: "2010 E-Rate Program and Broadband Usage Survey: Report," Federal Communications Commission, Wireline Competition Bureau

Hames and his team implemented an Aruba Networks wireless network four years ago, focusing first on getting 100 percent coverage and then, as demand and multimedia applications increased, adding additional APs at a rate of about 10 percent per year.

"You really can't underestimate demand, which isn't limited to just internal devices but also staff and students bringing in their own mobile devices," Hames says. "You've got to include those kinds of unknowns into your planning and make sure that whatever network and configuration you choose will be able to scale and adapt as demand grows."

Done right, though, a wireless network in a K–12 environment opens the doors to real possibilities, Hames says. "What wireless really does is begin to make computing just as ubiquitous and convenient as pen and paper, conversation or other traditional teaching methods. It's very freeing."

John Lee