Wi-Fi connectivity the tip of the technology iceberg for K-12 schools

Alcatel-Lucent’s Neal Tilley discusses the importance of getting Wi-Fi deployed in K-12 schools and how new technology can transform education

It’s been about two years since the FCC modernized E-Rate, which is the funding program for K-12 schools to buy technology. Prior to the revamp of the program, E-Rate funded a number of legacy technologies, such as modems, broadband and pagers.

E-Rate has now shifted to helping schools build better in-building experiences, with much of the funding directed at Wi-Fi. There’s a certain degree of urgency for schools to get Wi-Fi deployed (I’ll get into the reasons in a bit), but when making a Wi-Fi purchase, K-12 decision makers need to consider more than just connectivity.

To help understand why there is this urgency and what Wi-Fi needs to deliver in addition to connectivity, I interviewed Neal Tilley, business development director for Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise (ALE) and an expert on technology used in K-12 schools. 


Zeus: Why should schools take Wi-Fi build-outs seriously?

Neal: The world is changing and becoming more digital in nature. Technology is a great in creating new ways of learning. Virtual reality, robotics, mobile devices, machine learning and other technologies allow students to learn in entirely new, immersive ways. Globally, the United States’ fear of falling behind in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) will effect student success, and we run the risk of having a number of countries leapfrog us as the innovators in the digital era.

It looks like the U.S. government is starting to recognize this. The No Child Left Behind Act was focused on pushing students through elementary and middle school whether they were educated or not, but last year the mandate became “every student succeeds,” which aims to make sure students are actually being educated better.

[I’ve had the same opinion as Neal for years now and to validate what he said, I found an article on where the U.S. ranks with respect to STEM. Embarrassingly, the U.S. ranks outside of the top 30 in mathematics and outside of the top 20 in science. These numbers are improved from where they were a decade ago, but there is still so much more work to do. Also, USA Today did a nice job outlining how “every child succeeds” differs from “no child left behind.”]

Zeus: Describe how Wi-Fi can transform schools.

Neal: I don’t believe most schools are as prepared for what’s coming as they think. Everyone seems well aware of the rise of consumer devices in classrooms today, but these devices can significantly change the way students consume learning. The classroom can now be made virtual, allowing students to collaborate with each other or even with non-students in the community.

Mobile devices today are incredibly rich and can create new learning experiences. Instead of reading about something like the Civil War, students could watch immersive 360-degree videos and experience it differently. It’s great to think about “what’s possible” where students can use virtual reality to immerse themselves in particular topics and experience whatever they are learning as if they are there. Engagement improves learning, so its natural that mobility and Wi-Fi create better ways of engaging.

In my opinion, this is one of the biggest challenges facing K-12 today. Many schools I have worked with know that it’s just a matter of time before they have to support mobile devices, but most do not know how to use these to change the way students learn. E-books are always brought up, but reading a book on a mobile device isn’t game changing. The focus needs to be on using mobility and Wi-Fi to create new ways of learning instead of using a different medium to learn the old way. 

Also, the Internet of Things (IoT) is coming fast into education, and this will create a world where everything is smart, connected, and students can use this for not only sciences, but also arts programs, sports and almost anything you can think of.

All of these trends lead to an environment where schools can create highly personalized ways of learning that include ubiquitous online testing, multiple modes of educating to map to each child’s needs and more accurate, faster updates to parents. We sit on the precipice of great change and hence schools need to be ready. 

Zeus: The Wi-Fi network obviously plays an important role in creating a new educational experience. Other than connectivity, what else should decision makers consider? 

Neal: There are really two other elements to address, and I’ll discuss each one momentarily, but these are security and application management. 

Security needs to be top of mind to protect students and faculty privacy. This is in addition to its main role of preventing users from doing things they should not be doing. 

The explosion of devices from BYOD and use of IoT make securing the school environment more difficult, especially as the number of skilled IT people in schools have not grown in parallel. Traditional perimeter security such as firewalls is certainly important, but the focus needs to shift to the internal network, its importance, and this can only be done with good visibility tools.

For example, a school may deploy a connected thermostat to be socially responsible and greener. If someone hacks that device and spoofs the IP address, they may be able to use it to access something like the central server that contains personal information. If there are good visibility tools, someone, or a network device even, might notice that the thermostat is attempting something that it should not be doing and the device could be quarantined automatically. 

Also, emerging protocols like shortest path bridging (SPB) allow network administrators to create secure segments so that all of the IoT devices are in one zone and separate student devices in another. VLANs and ACLs can do this as well, but they require constant administration, where as the policy enforcement capabilities of SPB are much more automated, scalable and mobile. Segmentation technology is great in that it’s not intrusive like most other security tools. 

From the research I have done, K-12 is one of the fastest-growing verticals for focused cyber attacks. Credit card information used to be the hot item for hackers, but credit card companies close accounts any time there is even a hint of improper activity. Today, the focus has shifted to personal information, and K-12 has a wealth of personal information such as health records and attendance information. Health information, in particular is a favorite of hackers today, as this information can be used for directed phishing attacks and other scams. Much of this information is on unsecured servers, making it a ripe for cyber threats.

Application management ensures a good quality robust experience. In a K-12 environment where online testing has become more commonplace, there is a real need for application management. For example, if a student is taking a test online and the performance degrades, the school may be forced to offer the student a re-test, which frustrates everyone. It’s critical that network managers have the proper tools to monitor network traffic and then the intelligence to automatically adjust, using tools like automated quality of service.

Also, network data and analytics can help predict problems, avoid issues and automate actions to help under-resourced IT departments. If the school is using lots of video and over time usage is steadily rising, the school can take corrective actions, such as adding more bandwidth or throttling other types of traffic, before the service degrades, threatening the integrity of the network. The key here is also visibility. Without being able to “see” what’s going on, it’s hard to fix issues.

Zeus: In your experience, are schools thinking about this? 

Neal: They are to some extent, but it needs to be higher on their priority list. I was looking at some research from the Center for Digital Education, and one of the questions asked what the top K-12 priorities were for 2015. The top four were personalize learning, digital content and curriculum, professional development, and online testing. On the surface, this seems great, but the bottom four were cybersecurity policy, data management and analytics, student data privacy, and cybersecurity tools.

The irony here is that the school can’t really achieve the top four goals without addressing the bottom four first. So, yes most are aware of the issues of application management and security, but it needs to have a stronger focus if they are to be successful.

Zeus: Are there any final comments? 

Neal: Yes, something for schools to think about. The U.S. educational system is woefully behind most other developed nations. The new E-Rate model creates an opportunity to redefine how we teach and how students learn by creating more interactive and immersive experiences. The wireless network plays a critical role in connective devices, but it is also vital in ensuring the applications, systems and network are secure, offer the density needed and offer a high-quality experience for all the constituents.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.