Oct 12 2020

With E-Learning, Proactive Network Investments Pay Off

School districts’ proactive investments in their IT networks means their networks can handle the bandwidth demands of remote learning.

For school districts across the country, the quick pivot to remote learning in the spring put their IT networks to the test. The demands of the new school year — with many districts implementing in-person instruction, remote learning or a hybrid approach — are also continuing to push the limits of schools’ IT environments.

So far, the districts that have successfully adapted to the constantly changing demands of 2020 have been those that have made proactive investments in their IT networks — refreshes and builds aimed not only at meeting their existing connectivity and computing needs, but also at preparing for future growth and unanticipated spikes in demand.

“Those districts that had already designed their one-to-one environments to extend outside the physical building are doing well,” says Amy McLaughlin, project director for the Smart Education Networks by Design initiative at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

McLaughlin points to connectivity-extending initiatives such as cloud applications and Wi-Fi on buses, which are continuing to serve districts well during the pandemic. Some schools, she notes, have parked connected buses in neighborhoods to further accommodate students who need access.

“Schools that had been doing these initiatives beforehand were ahead of the game,” McLaughlin says. “They were already thinking outside the physical campus, already thinking about how to extend the network and ensure 24/7 access. The shift was a lot easier for them than for those who were focused on a very traditional model of everything onsite.”

For three IT leaders in Texas, Colorado and New Jersey, having a strong district network was a recipe for success during an unprecedented time.

How Schools Are Upgrading for Network Demands

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, with students and staff at home, the IT department at Killeen Independent School District in Texas has been busy beefing up the district’s wireless network, installing Cisco Catalyst 9120AX Series wireless access points in school buildings and administration sites, as well as Cisco Catalyst 9400 and 9300 Series switches with 10 Gigabit uplinks for the wired network. Several years ago, the district upgraded its core network infrastructure, replacing 1 Gigabit infrastructure with 10 Gigabit, installing Cisco Nexus 7000 Series switches. As a result of that proactive planning, the IT network was able to easily support educators and learners as they transitioned to a remote learning model last spring.

“Especially in times like this, it helps to be ready,” says Dean Murphy, network communications manager at Killeen ISD. “The COVID-19 crisis was unexpected, so it’s nice to have that infrastructure in place. You can continue the learning experience without interruptions. And then you can analyze network utilization during this time and make improvements in case something like this happens again.”

Dean Murphy, Network Communications Manager, Killeen Independent School District

Schools need to have the bandwidth and network capacity to support the emergence of future learning technologies, says Dean Murphy, network communications manager at Killeen ISD. Photography by John Davidson.

Like educators in many districts across the country, Killeen teachers have relied heavily on video collaboration platforms such as Zoom to connect with their students. And even before the switch to remote learning, teachers were increasingly using bandwidth-intensive digital resources such as online videos, meaning that any lags or jitters in network performance would have a negative impact on teaching and learning.

Before upgrading its core infrastructure, Killeen was nearly maxing out its network, hitting 98 percent utilization during the busiest parts of some days. Since the upgrades, network use is averaging about 30 percent of capacity. “You need to be ready for future growth and for the emergence of future learning technologies,” Murphy says. “You have to be ready for the bandwidth and network capacity those things are going to use. Being proactive allows you to have things ready so that students can continue their learning experience without any interruptions.”

DISCOVER: Why should schools keep Wi-Fi 6 in mind when planning network upgrades?

Connecting Students and Mitigating Digital Disparities

Remote instruction only works if students can actually connect, says Andrew Moore, CIO for Boulder Valley School District in Colorado. His district, where 20 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, has made a concerted effort in recent years to ensure that as many students as possible can access learning resources.

In 2013, Moore ran BVSD internet to a public housing development where 60 students lived, and the city put up wireless access points. However, because he used infrastructure paid for by the federal E-rate program, Moore unwittingly violated federal law. The district has been waiting for years for the Federal Communications Commission to rule on a waiver that would allow the use case. Meanwhile, Moore has worked to find other ways to connect students. The district is allowing an over-the-air internet provider to put equipment on its property in exchange for free internet for some students. And the district has also mounted outdoor wireless access points at two schools to enable “drive-up” Wi-Fi access.

“Every day that goes by, students who are not connected are not getting an equitable learning opportunity, and that’s a travesty for our nation,” Moore says.

The district’s own IT network remains important, especially in the current context. Boulder Valley plans to start the school year with fully remote instruction, but teachers are encouraged to come in and teach from classrooms using a district-designed setup called the Remote Education Video Audio System (REVAS).

The system features a 1080p webcam, 60-inch tripod, 27-inch monitor, Google Meet software and Chromebooks. The system also relies on two video feeds for each teacher, including an HD video feed, requiring robust network ­infrastructure, Moore notes.

Preparing IT Infrastructure for Tomorrow

Harry Doctor, technology manager at West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey, has a blunt assessment of the coronavirus crisis: “It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever faced.”

“We had what we thought were great plans,” Doctor says. “Then, within seven working days, new guidance came out from the Centers for Disease Control. Those plans have changed half a dozen to a dozen times.”

Even seemingly mundane details — such as how many students would be allowed on a bus at one time — were still in flux as Doctor and his team hustled to get the district ready for the 2020-2021 school year.

Still, the district’s IT networking efforts have helped bring order to the chaos. For instance, the district invested in two Palo Alto Networks PA-5250 series firewalls last year, which have helped accommodate the additional VPN traffic associated with remote learning.

“I always tell my group, it’s not about what you can do today, it’s not about what you can do tomorrow, it’s about what you can do a year or two from now,” Doctor says. “If we had bought the firewall that we were planning on buying — instead of two models up — we wouldn’t have been able to accommodate all these people remoting in.”

The district also had VMware Cloud in place for disaster recovery. But in March, the district moved 50 virtual servers from its data center into the cloud long term, freeing up onsite resources at a time when it was nearly impossible to quickly procure and deploy on-premises infrastructure due to intense demand.

“It was going to take two or three months to get one server,” Doctor recalls.

Now, he says, the district’s strong IT network is having a tangible impact on remote instruction. “Right from their Chromebooks, students can go to a VMware virtual desktop. They can still learn as if they were physically in the building.”

READ MORE: K–12 leaders in rural areas are investing in tech to ensure equitable remote learning opportunities.

Brian Stauffer/Theispot; Photography by John Davidson