Jan 16 2024

Network Upgrades Enhance the Educational Experience, Tech Leaders Say

K–12 schools score big with Wi-Fi 6 upgrades that offer seamless, secure connections.

At Sumner County Schools, in middle Tennessee just north of Nashville, Chris Brown is already seeing the practical benefits of a recent network upgrade for the students, administrators and IT staff.

For example, a 1,500-student high school in the district was able to make a vast improvement in the delivery of online testing, says Brown, assistant director of schools for information services. “Prior to this year, that testing might have taken two weeks,” he says. “With those devices working consistently because of the infrastructure upgrades, they were able to collapse that window down to just two to three days.”

For administrators, the shift to seamless online testing means they don’t have to spend countless hours organizing the logistics of a two-week testing period for online exams. They can devote that time to higher-level tasks, and teachers get those learning hours back.

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With more than 50 schools, 30,000 students and 5,500 staff, the district needed the bandwidth to enable digital learning across 50,000 devices each day. Thanks to the network upgrade’s dense deployment of Wi-Fi 6–capable access points, along with supporting cabling and switches, the district can meet today’s needs and is prepared for what’s to come.

With modernized networking, “we’re building something that’s scalable. We can add Wi-Fi in new places, such as outdoors. We can turn up features that we didn’t have access to before,” Brown says.

More APs in K–12 Classrooms Offer More Options for Students

With an impending deployment of one-to-one tablets to students in grades 6 through 12, the district had to prepare its technology infrastructure. According to Network Administrator Brian Lindsey, more devices and more bandwidth-intensive classroom uses would quickly stress the every-other-room Wi-Fi deployment.

“We needed to spread out the load and give our learners more options. Plus, we needed better security for devices,” Lindsey explained.

To close the gap, the district deployed Aruba 635 Series access points for connectivity in every classroom, 655 Series devices for larger spaces such as gyms and cafeterias, new Aruba switches and new CAT 6 cabling.

RELATED: Three crucial tips for designing your K-12 school’s Wi-Fi 6 upgrade.

Experts say it makes sense to modernize the cabling when undertaking a network refresh.

“Most Wi-Fi 6 deployments will use CAT 6 cabling, which matches the bandwidth to be configured on the access point itself,” says Dorothy Stanley, chair of the IEEE 802.11 Working Group. Some may even look to CAT 8 cables when there’s a long distance to be covered and very high throughput needs, she says.

With help from CDW, Brown and his team were able to roll out the upgrades on an accelerated timeline, working through spring and summer of 2023 to have everything in place for the start of school in September.

Strong buy-in from district leadership helped the team meet its ambitious timeline. “What it boils down to is that we all have a passion for driving the district forward. We wanted to make sure that all of our energies are dedicated toward that student experience and setting our students up to succeed,” Brown says. “Having top-down support for a serious investment in our infrastructure was really critical.”

Dorothy Stanley
With high device density, video streaming works better with Wi-Fi 6. Multimedia works better.”

Dorothy Stanley Chair, IEEE 802.11 Working Group

Robust, Reliable and Secure Networks Support Real-Time Collaboration

Sumner County Schools is not the only district looking to Wi-Fi 6 equipment as the necessary next step in support of digital learning.

The San Diego Unified School District, for example, “is committed to ensuring the wireless network is robust, reliable and secure to support instructional and operational needs,” says Sandra Arellano, manager of the district’s network services and telecommunications.

With this in mind, San Diego USD’s ongoing wireless network redesign “will include upgrading wireless controllers and access points,” Arellano says. The IT team will “improve capacity and signal range by installing multiple access points that have various antenna configurations for whole-campus coverage.”

The existing wireless network infrastructure operates on four redundant wireless controllers to accommodate 11,000 access points spanning 210 sites and supporting more than 115,000 learners. “The district is continually updating our wireless access points in classrooms to meet the growing demand,” Arellano says.

Sticking with Cisco equipment, the district is upgrading from a Catalyst 7510 wireless controller and wireless AP models 1142, 2700 and 2800 to a Wi-Fi 6–capable Catalyst 9800 Wireless Controller and wireless AP models 9130AXI, 9130AXE and 9124AXD.

LEARN MORE: How the flipped-classroom model helps students master new concepts.

Upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 Will See a Direct Impact on the Classroom

Implementation of Wi-Fi 6 will significantly improve data transfer speeds, which Arellano expects will have a direct classroom impact. “Wi-Fi 6 has the potential to significantly enhance the educational experience by providing faster access to online resources, such as e-learning platforms, educational videos and digital textbooks,” she says.

The improved capacity of Wi-Fi 6 “will also enhance real-time collaboration tools, such as videoconferencing, resulting in engaging discussions and content sharing without disruptions or delays,” she adds.

Experts say that a move to Wi-Fi 6 can also help districts embrace a range of emerging pedagogic strategies.

“Wi-Fi 6 enables video streaming to more devices and to devices that might have a combination of applications running at the same time,” Stanley says. That’s important in the emerging digital classroom.

“With high device density, video streaming works better with Wi-Fi 6. Multimedia works better; you might be watching a video clip and using some other educational tool that’s on the internet, and that will work seamlessly,” she says. “You want your collaborative applications like Webex or Zoom to work seamlessly. For that, you need the capacity of Wi-Fi 6.”

74%

The percent of all U.S. school districts Federal Communication Commission’s bandwidth goal of 1 Mbps per student

Source: Connect K-12, “2023 Report on School Connectivity,” November 2023
Drazen Zigic/Getty Images
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