For Merced Union High School District in California, recent network upgrades will support increasing bandwidth needs well into the future, says IT Director Anthony Thomas.

Schools Upgrade Networks with Future in Mind

School districts are upgrading their networks to accommodate future technology demands.

As the number of Merced Union High School District’s network-supported devices grew more than twofold in just seven years, district leaders knew they needed to get prepared.

The technology, a necessity for the modern classroom, is likely to increase. But would the district’s infrastructure support it all? It will now.

Merced Union is in the midst of a major network upgrade — one IT Director Anthony Thomas believes plants his district among the first in the race to 100 Gigabit Ethernet in K–12 education.

The district, which operates 10 high schools in central California, has installed Arista 7050CX3-32S 100Gbps core switches at its school sites and district office. 

In the next year, district leaders plan to replace all of the school system’s closet switches with 100Gbps hardware, installing between one and five new switches per building. 

And after that, Thomas plans to standardize new multigigabit wireless access points across the district

While Thomas takes pride in his district pushing the envelope when it comes to technology, he says the upgrade isn’t about having the beefiest network on the block. 

The refresh is necessary to future proof the network, support innovative instruction and head off the performance problems that were just beginning to pop up in the district, he says. 

“It isn’t about being first out of the gate,” Thomas says. “It’s more, let’s think outside the box. We always want to be ahead of the instructional curve. It can’t be a situation where we can’t do something instructionally because the network won’t allow us to do it. I never, ever want to have that conversation.”

Struggling to Meet Steadily Growing Network Demands

It’s a never-ending cycle: Schools and districts boost network capacity to accommodate new devices and applications, only to find that use cases rapidly expand to eat up the available capacity

This forces IT professionals to constantly manage the lifecycle of network equipment and to plan out hardware refreshes long before bottlenecks begin to hamper instruction. 

Here’s an example of how quickly things move: In the 2014-15 school year, the Federal Communications Commission set an external internet connectivity goal of at least 100 kilobits per second, per student, with a WAN connectivity goal of 1 megabit per second, per student. 

By 2017-18, the FCC had moved the per-student goalposts to 1Mbps of internet connectivity and 10Mbps of WAN connectivity

“When you talk about the network, you’re talking about something that is the foundation of so many other serv­ices,” says Amy McLaughlin, project lead for the Smart Education Networks by Design Initiative at the Consortium for School Networking. “You pull one string over here, and something over there moves.”

McLaughlin notes that schools are not only adding devices for teachers and students but also are using their networks to support more Internet of Things equipment, such as security cameras and classroom doors that can be locked down with the press of a button from the main office. 

Seven years ago, during its last network refresh, Merced Union supported about 12,000 devices, Thomas says. Today, the district’s network supports roughly 30,000 devices, including cameras, HVAC equipment, smartwatches and connected TVs

Those devices also do far more on the network than they used to. 

“Everybody is on G Suite now, everybody is using a digital curriculum,” Thomas says. “In the beginning, student devices were more of a replacement for pencil and paper.” 

In Washington state, Highline Public Schools is replacing its 1 Gigabit fiber network with a 100 Gigabit fiber ring. CTO Mark Finstrom anticipates the number of networked devices will grow from 27,000 to nearly 50,000

“By the end of this school year, we’ll get our cameras on there, we’ll get our connected door locks, we’ll be adding additional student devices,” Finstrom says. “And then you have any personal device that students or teachers have. The device-to-student ratio is moving from 1-to-1 to 2-to-1 or even 3-to-1.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how hyperconvergence has become mainstream for K–12 schools.

After Upgrades, Network Performance ‘Like Night and Day’

Highline Public Schools is installing a multidirectional fiber ring with two points of entry into the district, which provides additional resiliency

“We’ve had outages with the current setup due to people hitting utility poles, or where the power company has temporarily dropped service to a location,” Finstrom says. “With the new setup, we’re working on two separate power grids. Everything becomes replicable.” 

The district is also replacing its core and closet networking infrastructure with 10Gbps switches from Ruckus and upgrading its wireless access points. 

In Tennessee, McMinn County School District undertook a multiyear effort to upgrade and future proof its network. It previously had performance issues big enough to hamper a planned one-to-one device rollout.

88%

The percentage of schools and libraries that expect their internet bandwidth needs to grow by 25 percent or more over the next three years1

Source: Funds for Learning, “2019 E-Rate Trends Report,” June 2019

As a solution, the district deployed Extreme Networks X440 and X460 switches, along with more than 500 Extreme Networks AP3935 wireless APs, which meet 802.11ac (Wave 2) connectivity standards. 

“Teachers couldn’t get online sometimes before the refresh,” CTO Jill Pierce says. “We were having all kinds of problems.” 

It wasn’t just older, lower-capacity equipment that hindered McMinn County Schools’ network. Suboptimal network design and management also caused problems, Pierce says. 

For one, the district had a hodgepodge of networking gear, with wireless APs from various vendors and generations. 

Schools also lacked the staff to properly investigate performance problems and ensure networking equipment was correctly configured.

The district also made simple fixes to persistent connectivity problems. 

In some cases, schools eliminated wireless interference by swapping out old network cards in computers — a relatively inexpensive solution. 

In another instance, an old microwave in a teacher’s classroom caused interference when students used it to heat their lunches. 

“Before, 97 percent of help tickets were wireless- or internet-based tickets because teachers couldn’t get online,” Pierce says. “We’ve pretty much done away with those entirely. It’s like night and day. We just don’t have those issues like we used to.” 

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how E-Rate improvements support faster IT upgrades.

Teachers Maximize Instructional Time With High-Performing Networks

McMinn County Schools’ network refresh has had a significant impact in the classroom — not only because connections are faster, but also because teachers can now plan their lessons around web resources with confidence that students will be able to get online, Pierce says. 

“Instructionally, there’s a big difference,” she says. “Teachers just didn’t rely on our network before.” Numbers bear her out: Five years ago, 62 percent of the district’s instructional resources were online. Today, 92 percent are. 

“There are very few things that don’t touch the internet today, and we need to provide access,” she says. “It’s a whole different ballgame.” 

While network upgrades allow more devices to connect more seamlessly, the larger consideration is what students are doing on those devices, Finstrom says.

Anthony Thomas headshot
It can’t be a situation where we can’t do something instructionally because the network won’t allow us to do it.”

Anthony Thomas IT Director, Merced Union High School District

Extra capacity lets them engage in more resource-intensive activities, such as streaming videos, collaborating and accessing interactive resources

“If you consider that you have more devices, obviously one-to-one has an impact,” Finstrom says. “But the real impact comes in the kind of content that gets delivered. As we move toward more interactive content, that content takes more bandwidth.” 

Thomas emphasizes that a high-performance network is crucial to allowing teachers to take full advantage of the time they have with students. 

“When you get 40 students in a classroom on YouTube, for us, it’s about making the most of those instructional minutes,” he says. “The equipment just has to work. It can’t fail you, and it can’t slow down.”

Ryan Tuttle
Oct 22 2019

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