Schools switch on to WiFi

Opinion Jan 03, 2013

Dealing with the challenges of BYOD and Wi-Fi in schools? Ruckus Wireless' Bryan Hall looks at the channel opportunities

The education experience is changing as an emerging generation of digitally ‘switched on’ students are putting increasing pressure on schools to incorporate more high-tech into the curriculum. More resources are becoming digitalised, and students are crying out to use their latest gadgets and applications as an integral part of their education experience.

The key to providing this capability is reliable wireless connectivity that enables portable devices like smartphones and tablets to gain easy access to current knowledge-share digital resources. This creates challenges for network managers to deploy the right Wi-Fi infrastructure and user policies to support the number of devices and applications – presenting a tremendous opportunity for resellers to deliver a robust Wi-Fi network and associated provisioning tools that meet schools’ BYOD requirements.

According to The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 23 percent of primary schools and 22 percent of secondary schools now rely on wireless for either all or a substantial portion of their network.

Schools however must have reliable Wi-Fi to enable this transition. Many schools have found that off-the-shelf hardware is not up to the task of supporting an increasing number of devices, or penetrating thick walls of concrete and brick construction, and blanketing every corner and crevice – including outdoor areas. This is where distributors and resellers can step in and provide the education and technology required to eliminate the constraints of the old wired network.

Wi-Fi can also deliver schools many other benefits too, one of which is the inherent flexibility and scalability of a wireless network. Schools impacted by the growing BYOD trend need to ensure that their networks can deal with the extra demand caused by additional devices. With a wired network, schools do not have this flexibility, often incurring considerable costs associated with maintaining and extending the wired network, as well as the sheer disruption involved with ripping out and refitting the network infrastructure. Wi-Fi can substantially reduce this expenditure as schools can cost-effectively maintain and scale up the network, using a mesh configuration to negate the need for expensive wiring and cabling. By using Wi-Fi technology with automated channel selection capabilities, schools can also deal with the peaks in demand caused by the BYOD trend.

A proper Wi-Fi network also enables teachers and administrators to turn to alternative devices, providing students with a more engaging and interactive experience. Mobile devices, such as the tablet, are seen as a cheaper, more cost-effective solution to enable access to shared learning resources, as they are cheaper than laptops and desktops. However, role-based access is often the biggest hurdle when deploying a BYOD solution in schools, as the IT team needs to know what devices are on the network at any time and who owns them, to ensure access only to appropriate content and that no unauthorised devices can access the network.

To address this, there are a few easy-to-use tools that the channel needs to be aware of when provisioning devices on to the school’s network. Automated device provisioning, for example, provides schools with a secure on-boarding tool that allows users to self-provision devices without IT intervention.

For instance, in a typical workflow, users can connect to a provisioning network, securely login with their domain credentials, and the provisioning tool will auto-configure their device with the appropriate network profile and its associated privileges. The device then re-connects to the network and the user receives access, based on the role-based policies in place on the Wi-Fi system—or obtained from a user database (fig. 1). IT stays out of the on-boarding loop and yet retains full control over the user/device access. And in most systems, administrators gain visibility to see device-specific settings (MAC and IP addresses, hostname, etc.), the registered user of the device, what type of device it is, and plenty more. This feature removes the headache of provisioning devices on the network for the IT manager and allows students and teachers quicker access to the network.

Figure 1 - Automated device provisioning workflow

As schools look to revolutionise the way they deliver knowledge share resources and support BYOD, this is where the channel comes in. For many schools, off-the-shelf Wi-Fi solutions will not be good enough to provide complete coverage or support large numbers of devices connecting to the network. It is due to this fact that schools will turn to their trusted partners for answers and to provide them with the tools to remove the constraints of the wired network.

With the growing use of mobile devices in schools, resellers will have the opportunity to provide the technology needed to achieve maximum coverage and the tools to efficiently and securely provision devices on the network. The delivery of education is changing and it’s obvious that the channel can be at the forefront of this digital revolution.

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Image: Shutterstock

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