School Districts Lay Foundation for Mobile Devices

To handle the load of notebooks, iPhones and other computing tools students use in class, IT staff members are building a framework to support them.

by Tanya Roscorla / March 4, 2010 0
Fourth-grader Bella accesses her teacher's Web site from home with her iTouch | Photo by Jennifer Caracciolo

Over the past two years, Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Ga., has slowly allowed some of its 34,000 students to bring their own notebooks, iPhones or other computing tools to school and connect them to the district network.

To handle the load of these extra devices — along with the interactive whiteboards that were already in each classroom — the technology staff had to build a framework that would support them, and other districts around the country are following suite. 

A dual wide area network connection, a triple Internet connection and a robust wireless infrastructure have allowed the district to expand its bring-your-own-technology (BYOT) drive, said Bailey Mitchell, chief technology and information officer at the district, which is about 50 miles outside of Atlanta. The biggest push for that drive will start this spring, and the IT staff will talk with school leaders to bring them on board.

“It’s a district idea that we’re going to depend heavily on the building-level leadership to manage and implement,” Mitchell said. "They’re going to have to have some ownership in it, and that ownership’s going to require that we’re all on the same page about procedure.”

 

Improve Internet, wide area connections

Because so many instructional activities depend on the network, the district decided to use three different Internet service providers and two different wide area connection companies. Should one of the connections go down, teachers can still use the others and won't experience a huge interruption.

“You’ve really got to have a plan in play so that you minimize the potential for any outages,” Mitchell said.

School districts should also evaluate their Internet connection to see if they have enough bandwidth on each side of the pipe, said Stephen Dukker, chairman and CEO of NComputing. A typical network subscription generally allows a lot of data to come to the school, but may only have a small capacity for the amount of data going out from the school, and that becomes an issue if students access the school's network from their computing devices at home.

“They need to make sure their Internet subscription service has sufficient speed in both directions," Dukker said, "both for them to transmit information to the students, as well as for students in the classrooms to download information from the Internet.”

As Upper Darby School District in Drexel Hill, Pa., shored up its tech foundation this summer and switched to virtual servers, the IT staff members realized that the 14 schools had to be able to connect to the core in a timely fashion, said Eileen Hershman, educational research and technology coordinator for the district. That meant increasing the bandwidth and providing connectivity and fiber network among the buildings.

“We are making sure that we can handle a fast Internet connection between each of them, because now everyone is talking to that core infrastructure that we built,” Hershman said.

The IT staff worked with CDW-G to create virtual servers that would allow them to centrally manage the 5,000 computing devices that were spread throughout the Drexel Hill, Penn., schools. Along with virtualizing servers, the 12,000-student school system purchased a storage area network so students and staff could store their projects in one place and retrieve them from any location.  

 

Consult teachers, students

In Louisville, Ky., Jefferson County Public Schools has built up its technology foundation to support the 33,000 computers on the network, which include tablets, laptops and desktops, said Bo Lowrey, director of telecommunications.

Since more students and teachers have been using mobile devices, the district has seen a tremendous amount of traffic and load, especially with video streaming sites such as YouTube and high-bandwidth instructional applications. Over a five-year period, the district went from a 12-megabit wide area network to a 1,000 megabit network, or 1 gigabit. The approximately 25th largest school district in the country also built up its wireless system, which now includes 2,000 access points.

A number of years ago, Lowrey was planning to wire a teacher's classroom and asked the teacher what she wanted. The teacher responded, "I want it all, and I want it now." That still holds true today, which is why he advises other school districts to plan ahead and listen to what educators need.

“Keep an eye on your growth trends and don’t be foolish in the terms of building capacity," Lowrey said. "However, don’t be conservative either, because as quickly as you build it they will find a way to consume it.”

Districts should also talk with students before they start something new, said Mitchell of Forsyth County Schools. Administrators need to ask the kids how they approach learning with technology, what kinds of tech tools they would like to see in school and how they would use the tools if they had them, which is what his district has done with its bring-your-own-technology (BYOT) push.

“In the past, we would come up with an initiative, and we’d get it funded, we’d plan for it, we’d roll it out," Mitchell said. "Did we ever ask the students about it? No. So some of the newer initiatives we’re doing like this BYOT, we’re starting with that conversation with students — 'what do y’all think?' — and getting that ground floor involvement with them at the onset of the project, ’cause ultimately that’s who we’re doing it for anyway.”