Wi-Fi Rules

Wireless networks are the new education superhighway.

GUEST COLUMN | by Robert Fenstermacher

CREDIT Aruba Networks imageThe classroom is the ultimate litmus test for the practical application of technology. To keep up with an über tech-fluent student population, school administrators and CIOs must work hand-in-hand to marry the latest technologies to curriculum. But, the onslaught of learning and assessment apps, mobile devices and connected classroom peripherals are bringing the underlying Wi-Fi network to a grinding halt.

Only a few years ago, the demands placed on wireless networks were minimal and wired connectivity was still an option for high bandwidth, latency-sensitive apps.

Today however, everything has changed. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies and 1:1 device initiatives ensure a steady increase in the number of mobile devices being used on campus, devices that for the most part don’t come with built-in Ethernet ports.

In fact, the pervasiveness of mobile adoption has added new meaning to the December holiday season for IT staffs nationwide, as it’s now standard operating procedure for a high number of students to return from winter break with the newest technology gifts in tow.

In fact, the pervasiveness of mobile adoption has added new meaning to the December holiday season for IT staffs nationwide, as it’s now standard operating procedure for a high number of students to return from winter break with the newest technology gifts in tow.

While the holiday season is a challenge for Wi-Fi networks, other events like multimedia-based curriculum and updates to mobile operating systems can be catastrophic. For instance, some schools saw their wireless traffic triple the day that Apple rolled out iOS7. That spike in traffic continued as iOS7-versions of mobile apps were updated on iPhones and iPads across campuses nationwide and it went even higher as larger OS X Mavericks updates hit laptops just a month later.

This constant refresh of technology requires institutions at every level to be prepared always for the barrage of the latest innovations – and the learners who are eager to use them.

Pedagogy and the wireless imperative

The need for robust Wi-Fi has broad implications in education, not just for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of teaching, but also in the applied use of mobile devices and apps in a student’s future employment.

For example, insurance adjusters now use smartphone apps instead of carrying a camera, tape measure and other specialized instruments. Physical therapists use tablets to chart patient progress. Retail workers use wireless devices for inventory and stocking. The global drive towards the Internet of Things (IoT) guarantees that technology, and more specifically mobility, will become part and parcel to almost any career that a student may choose.

In higher education, the preponderance of student computing devices is leading to tectonic shifts. The “flipped classroom” is one shining example. In a flipped classroom, instructors record lectures and require students to view the lectures as homework prior to actual classroom sessions. Class time is then used for interactive engagement, which is often enhanced by collaborative technologies.

At the K-12 level, meeting educational mandates increasingly leverages technology. For the 45 states adopting the new Common Core curriculum, standards call for using computing technology – including the Internet – in classroom activities as early as Grade 3.

Also, the Common Core’s all-online assessment testing is adding to demands. Many schools are ramping up their wireless infrastructure in advance of the first full assessment, scheduled for the 2014-2015 academic year, to ensure students can complete the assessments efficiently and effectively. Even in non-Common Core states, K-12 curriculum is embracing technology use by younger students more than ever before.

Modern Wi-Fi to the rescue

Fortunately, advances in modern wireless networking infrastructure are making it easier for educational institutions to meet growing connectivity and access demands while also easing burdens on already-lean IT departments. For reliable, secure and high-performance data superhighways, institutions should consider these key wireless technologies:

Gigabit Wi-Fi. The new IEEE 802.11ac standard, also called “Gigabit Wi-Fi”, significantly improves the wireless experience for bandwidth-intensive applications, such as enabling multiple elementary classrooms to simultaneously view and manipulate video clips and university design students to collaborate in real-time on film, illustration and computer graphics programs. Additionally, because Wi-Fi is a shared resource, the added capacity delivered by 802.11ac comes in handy as an increasing number of mobile devices attempt to access the network at the same time.

In addition to offering three times the performance, or 1.3 Gigabits per second (Gbps) for newer 802.11ac-capable devices like the Macbook Air and Samsung Galaxy Note, 802.11ac networks also significantly boost speeds for 802.11n and older devices.

802.11ac has another big advantage; it’s the last big capacity boost for Wi-Fi that can still fit over existing gigabit Ethernet networks. When Wi-Fi eventually moves beyond gigabit speeds, a more extensive network upgrade will be required to support 10 gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) backhaul for each wireless access point (AP).

Cloud-based network management. A persisting “Achilles heel” for Wi-Fi is the deployment and maintenance of these networks. Because schools are dealing with something that can’t be seen and something that is subject to all sorts of interference, it’s increasingly difficult to isolate issues and maintain a reliable connection for all of a network’s users. And, because education networks are often distributed across multiple buildings and geographic locations, IT departments need to be able to view and manage everything remotely. That’s why cloud-based wireless network management – the latest in administration efficiency – is revolutionizing the way educational institutions manage their Wi-Fi networks.

Cloud-based management offers all of the features and functionality of centralized on-premise management applications, but with the added benefit of enabling IT staffs to troubleshoot and fine-tune network operations anytime, anywhere. Not only does cloud-based management save on travel-related costs, it also ensures network administrators can quickly and efficiently meet the access needs of students and educators around the clock.

Zero-touch, self-provisioning access points. Another major innovation in wireless networks is “zero-touch” provisioning, meaning that a non-IT person at a school location or remote facility can plug in an AP and the AP will automatically configure itself with all of the appropriate security and settings. This eliminates the need for onsite technical assistance and significantly cuts deployment times.

With zero-touch Wi-Fi, schools receive a full set of enterprise-class Wi-Fi features in an affordable, low maintenance solution that is simple to deploy and manage – a key benefit when supporting a growing number of mobile devices across multiple sites and rolling out technology initiatives such as 1:1 programs. 

Unified access management. Although many higher-ed organizations have a longer track record with BYOD and mobile devices than K-12 schools, institutions at every level continue to struggle with ensuring that the right users and devices have the right access to the right internal and external systems. That’s why robust, centralized AAA (Authentication, Authorization and Accounting) and network access policy control has become so critical.

This technology gives schools the power to see what type of device is on the network, who is using it, where the device is located and how it’s being used. Based on this contextual information, schools can put in place fine-grained policy controls. For example, a student in the library on an iPad will have a different level of access security and experience than a teacher with an IT-issued laptop in a classroom or an alumnus on a smartphone visiting from out of town.

Network access management systems can also use this contextual information to automate device onboarding, control how media appliances like projectors and printers are shared, and even enforce the presence of Mobile Device Management (MDM) on devices. It’s one system to secure and control all things mobile.

Additionally, with a network access management platform, schools can perform these functions across a multivendor network with a single platform.

In other words, such tools not only enable secure mobility and BYOD, they also reduce network security and data loss risks, conserve administrative resources, decrease help desk calls and ensure a more simplified, consistent network experience for all network users.

The Mobile Campus

Now more than ever, mobility is at the forefront of education technology initiatives. And, although the challenge to offer secure and robust Wi-Fi has grown exponentially, innovation in Wi-Fi has risen to the occasion. Schools are continuing to lead the way on the effective use of technology in a business-critical setting.

Robert Fenstermacher is a Product and Solutions Marketing Director at Aruba Networks with primary responsibility for developing and executing Aruba’s Unified Access and Network Services strategy. Robert has over 15 years of industry experience with senior product line management positions at Ascend Communications, Lucent Technologies, Sycamore Networks and Extreme Networks. He has a Finance degree and an MBA, both from the University of Oregon.

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