An Issue of School Culture

Tech wisdom from one of the nation’s first fully digital curriculum public school districts.

GUEST COLUMN | by Matt Federoff

CERDIT Vail School District ArizonaEducation today has to meet the expectations that our learners bring from the rest of their daily experiences. As they expect their communications, news, and social interactions to happen anytime and anywhere, so too do they expect to be able to learn anytime and anywhere. The idea that “learning” is an activity that happens only in a designated area called a “classroom” (and only between the hours of 8 and 3) seems absurd to modern students. Further, the notion that a designated instructor is the sole source for information and opinion no longer holds true. With ubiquitous wireless devices, widespread Wi-Fi, and vast amounts of digital content, our users have demanding expectations on how, when, and where they will learn.

IT leaders must acknowledge that our users expect fast, reliable, and seamless wireless coverage everywhere on campus. 

Modern learners (both the students and teachers) expect to be able to learn (and teach!) anywhere on campus. Every classroom, office, library, and conference area is a potential instructional space. IT leaders must acknowledge that our users expect fast, reliable, and seamless wireless coverage everywhere on campus. This used to be the exception, but now it’s the expectation at every school — whether K-5, middle school, or high school.

Vail School District is located in the historical ranching and mining community in Vail, Arizona and boasts 18 schools, 1,700 employees, and more than 12,000 students. Vail’s five high schools are “1:1”, with a mix of district devices and BYOD. Along with a rapidly growing district and an all-digital curriculum, the Vail data network has very high expectations to meet.

Vail opened Arizona’s first 1:1 high school in 2005, and the nation’s first official BYOD initiative in 2009. After multiple iterations of wireless networking, Vail settled on a Cisco controller-based model in 2009. In general, the solution worked well for the needs of the time, but the intrinsic limitations of this approach became more evident as more demands were placed on the wireless network. A controller-based network architecture routes all wireless traffic through the controller, an inefficient model across widely distributed campuses. It also creates a single point of failure in the controller itself. These limitations, along with the mounting costs for licensing fees, firmware updates and costs of sparing equipment led us to search for an alternative solution that could provide better performance, resiliency, and lower costs.

The Aerohive approach of putting more intelligence into the wireless access point and moving management to the cloud was the perfect fit for us. As their access points deal with traffic locally rather than requiring it all to go back to the controller, network utilization is more efficient and latency is reduced. Each access point can work autonomously, so there is no single point of failure.

Vail School District has multiple networks in place for students, staff and guests to accommodate thousands of users and devices. The District has standardized on Aerohive for all new schools since 2012, along with HiveManager Online for cloud-based network management and policy control.

The flexibility and features of the their solution enables the district to easily manage and control the network. For example, if students break online user agreements, the solution provider enables Vail to relegate them to the ‘no-fun network’, resulting in only being allowed on a network that has access to educational resources, without social media or entertainment options.

A controller-less solution reduces capital expenditures and allows the district to scale and grow as needed by easily adding access points, without heavy expenses for additional controllers, or other costs associated with licensing fees.

Wireless performance is a classroom management issue, as poor reliability gives students more opportunities for off-task behavior. Wireless performance is an instructional issue, as precious teaching minutes are lost struggling with the technology, rather than using it.

In the 21st century, wireless performance ultimately is a school culture issue. We can’t create the learning experiences our students need without creating the learning spaces to support them. These spaces have pervasive high quality wireless, and it’s up to us in IT to provide this wireless network and help move our schools forward.

Matt Federoff is CIO of Vail Unified School District. For 15-plus years, he has designed and managed the implementation of instructional and information technology at the fastest-growing school district in Arizona. He established the district as the widely recognized leader in edtech in Arizona, opening 14 schools, including Arizona’s first “one-to-one” school in 2005 and the first “textbook-free” high school in the U.S. Additionally, he co-created the digital content repository “Beyond Textbooks” initiative in 2008, implemented Arizona’s first “BYOD” initiative in 2009, and installed Wi-Fi on school buses in 2010, making Vail one of the first public school districts in the U.S. to do so. He is a national and international presenter on education technology in K-12 and higher education, including at ISTE, COSN, SXSW, NSBA, T+L, and a number of other state and regional events.

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