The roots of the educational technology revolution are planted in the explosion of consumer and business technology usage. How do today's students-and teachers-use technology in their lives away from the classroom?
By Sufian Dweik, Regional Director, MEMA at Brocade
They use it in any number of ways: Internet browsing, texting, e-mailing, gaming, photo and video sharing, blogging, tweeting, social networking, the list goes on and on. New education technology is beginning to make the word "class" seem outdated.
Customisable e-learning applications and high-speed Internet browsing on individual or small group levels are leading to a more interesting, more in-depth, more personalised learning experience that is a major factor in improving student performance. 1:1 computing is becoming more prevalent and more and more personal end-user devices are being used in the classroom.
As school IT departments begin to lay the groundwork that will form the back bone of tomorrow's smart schools, they need to identify the attributes that must be in place to ensure network and student success.
What are the most important considerations a school or university must take into account as they plan to deploy, extend, or enhance their e-learning capabilities? What are the most important educational- and operational- capabilities the system should provide?
Scalability and growth
One of an educational institution's most basic goals is to build a backbone network that will not become limited or obsolete before its time. The best networks are able to expand and grow quickly and inexpensively. The network must also have the agility to quickly adapt to breakthrough technologies and applications that arrive faster than expected.
No educational institution can afford to rip out and replace its communications network every few years. To provide optimum scalability, an education network must be stable and reliable at its core, able to accommodate enhancements through software upgrades, support a multitude of applications, and seamlessly add new users and new devices.
In addition to providing for efficient, cost-effective network growth, there are numerous other network attributes educators and administrators must consider as they plan to develop or expand their telecommunications networks. To be a successful, performance-enhancing solution, an educational network must provide certain key capabilities.
The most crucial component of educational telecommunications networks is connectivity, more specifically, broadband connectivity. Not only must the network be accessible to student devices such as laptops and netbooks, but it must provide high-speed connectivity to support multiple bandwidth-intensive applications to dozens of students simultaneously. These applications include Internet browsing, streaming video, video teleconferencing, interactive collaboration, and countless others.
To be the foundation of the new e-learning system, educational networks must be available at all times. When a network has a reliability problem, the connected classroom is all too often put out of commission. Learning is disrupted. Students lose focus and teachers are frustrated. Lesson plans that rely on the Internet or e-learning applications may have to revert back to using textbooks and lectures. Online testing may be disrupted. Student performance can suffer. In any school environment, reliability is paramount.
Educational technology places an increased burden on network security. Students must not be able to hack into parts of the system where they don't belong or access inappropriate content from off-campus networks.
Criminal elements must not be able to penetrate the network to steal student data and school information. Wireless networks must be more than simply password protected; they must make use of today's strongest encryption and intrusion protection systems. The networks must also be in compliance with industry and governmental education communications and security standards.
To provide the best service and value, educational telecommunications networks must coexist and cooperate with legacy systems that are already in place. Ensuring that the campus network can work seamlessly with other systems assures a reliable connection to off-campus networks, including community-wide residential and business telecommunications systems.
Interoperability with local fire, police, EMT, and other first-responder agencies enhances campus and personal safety. Also, connectivity between schools and educational networks enables more effective and affordable online, remote, and distance learning opportunities.
Administrators and IT departments also look for networks that provide functionality beyond strictly educational capabilities. They want communication networks that can enhance operational efficiency. These include capabilities such as real-time inter- and intra-departmental voice, data, and messaging connectivity that improves both operational communications and employee productivity.
Networks should also provide mobile connectivity for instant access to educational materials, staff resources, and emergency assistance. In addition, they must enable operations-enhancing applications such as Learning Management Systems, VoIP, and video conferencing.
By taking note of these key factors for success, school IT departments can identify the technology vendors who would help them achieve all the goals of their e-learning initiatives. While the list of solutions may seem extensive, only the most innovative vendors and partners offer true market leading technologies that combine enterprise class performance with practical pricing models.