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Considerations for Wi-Fi deployments in K-12 education settings

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With the FCC's new in-school Wi-Fi initiative kicking into gear, schools need to take a few things into consideration before deploying.

If you follow either the K-12 vertical or the Wi-Fi industry, you probably saw the news that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revamped its E-Rate program and plans to boost the amount of money allocated to in-school Wi-Fi. At the time, I wrote a post discussing how the announcement would impact the vendors, and now I would like to discuss what school systems should be thinking about as they prepare to expand or deploy Wi-Fi. I had some thoughts about this, but also discussed the topic with Kezia Gollapudi, product marketing manager for K-12 at Aruba Networks. Aruba has a large install base in K-12, so I thought she would be a good person to discuss the topic with.

See also: How the FCC's in-school Wi-Fi program could affect vendors

First, it’s important to understand why the E-Rate changes are so important. E-Rate helps schools in small or rural school districts build technology infrastructure that’s on par with what can be found in affluent or larger areas of the country. Recently, many states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. Common Core establishes a consistent set of standards for students and prepares them for life after high school. To date, 45 out of 50 states have adopted the Common Core Standards, with Alaska, Texas, Virginia, Nebraska, and Minnesota being the lone remaining hold outs. One of the keys to Common Core is that every student has a similar education experience. This will drive the use of tablets, online classes and laptops as the curriculum evolves. Every student will need a robust, high-quality wireless experience, thus the boost in funding for Wi-Fi.

Additionally, educational leaders need to rethink their curriculum and how technology integrates into it. The school needs to consider what kinds of applications to run, how aggressive it wants to be with e-books, and the level of multimedia used on the network. This will determine the device strategy and the mix of devices such as iPads and Chrome Books. To do this effectively, though, schools need to shed conventional thinking and consider what’s possible with a tablet. These devices shouldn’t be used to just replicate paper and teach the old way. Instead, consider the rich, interactive experiences students can have with a device that allows for real-time updates, video, and collaboration with others.

Once the curriculum and device strategy is determined, it’s time to put together a network plan. Kezia and I discussed some best practices, and here is what K-12 schools should plan for.

  • One AP per classroom should be the norm. Historically, schools have deployed one AP for every two to three classrooms. In the era of tablets and cloud computing, that simply won’t cut it, and one AP per classroom is almost mandatory.
  • Deploy 802.11AC. In general, schools should always consider the leading technology. Sure, it may be a bit more expensive, but it’s likely that whatever is going in today will be in place for five years. If that’s the case, why start with technology that’s already a year or two old? The E-Rate revamp may create a faster upgrade cycle, but I would still recommend using leading-edge infrastructure.
  • Deploy outdoor APs. Students learn outside the school as well as in. Projects for some classes are often done outside, and students need connectivity to work on them. Consider the track and gym, as there are a bunch of athletic and training applications available today.
  • Talk to students to determine what tools they are using today. One of the mistakes school administrators make is to try and guess what applications and tools students use. The best way to determine this is to talk to the students and involves them in the process.
  • Content filtering is a must. Schools obviously have to be careful about what content students are looking at and what applications are being downloaded. Content filtering can help keep unwanted traffic off the network and avoid potential problems.
  • Decide between controller-less and controller-managed. There’s no right answer here. Instead, the decision on what architecture to use is based on the IT environment. If the district has a centralized IT model, then use a controller, as this fits that model best. If IT infrastructure management is distributed to the schools, then controller-less might be better. I also think controller-less is better for smaller IT staffs since these solutions are easier to deploy and configure.
  • Implement a guest network. Not having guest access in any environment is a huge pet peeve of mine. With today’s solutions, putting up a guest network is dead easy. In a school, a guest network is important for parents and other visitors who need network access.

E-Rate reform was long overdue, but now that it’s happened schools should be aggressive with their Wi-Fi plans. The decision on what to deploy and when isn’t easy, but if the school understands the device and application strategy and follows some best practices, it should be able to have a successful Wi-Fi upgrade or deployment.

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