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Technology (Enhancing + Engaging + Connecting)

Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age 

PHOTO © KARELNOPPE/SHUTTERSTOCK

There's a lot of excitement in education for leveraging BYOD and other mobile technologies, like desktop videoconferencing. But making these technologies work requires more than changing policies or purchasing webcams. Such innovations require robust wireless networking infrastructure. Here’s how we’re making it happen in our sprawling district despite a challenging budgetary environment.

Over the past decade, technology has become such an integral part of teaching and learning at the Dysart Unified School District, in Arizona, that we’ve attracted local, regional and national recognition for our efforts, including a Salute District award from the National School Boards Association.

Among other things, we developed an in-house suite of tools called iPAL that enables teachers to hone in on individual strengths and weaknesses of each student. Also, our teachers have 24/7 access to online professional development, which we call PD in your PJs, and administrators have online databases that provide to-the-minute information on class sizes, attendance and enrollment.

At the student level, we embrace — rather than block — access by encouraging pupils to bring their own devices. With BYOD, students and educators can utilize the dozens of instructional technologies we provide. Also, in the future, we hope to provide connectivity on our school buses, where some students spend an average of three hours a day due to our sprawling 140 square-mile district.

Wireless networking: Critical enabling technology

Of course enabling end users to benefit from these, and other, innovations requires a robust wireless LAN (WLAN) infrastructure. Although we had deployed wireless hot spots some years ago, the growing demand by students and educators for BYOD access was overwhelming our existing system.

Despite our budgets being flat since they were slashed during the Great Recession, and our population growing at 1,000 students annually, we determined network access was a priority. So we began a multi-year initiative in 2011 to move from a hot-spot model to ubiquitous Wi-Fi both inside and outside our facilities.

To start, we conducted the usual review of wireless infrastructure manufacturers. However, at Dysart, we approach technology selection and vendor partnerships somewhat differently.

It’s common for many organizations, not just school districts, to favor their incumbent vendors and associated technology solutions. Here, we evaluate every partner regularly based on a rubric that combines quality of product, service and the needs of the district. Additionally, we only sign one-year contracts to ensure we have the flexibility to change course.

As we proceed with a partnership we meet with the provider every three months. Both sides are expected to share ideas and discuss concerns. At those meetings we also expect our partners to inform us about innovations on the horizon so we plan for them and ensure we have the necessary resources for adoption.

In the case of Wi-Fi, the interaction process with our technology integrator, VectorUSA, led to selecting Aruba Networks as our wireless networking vendor. We chose Aruba over our incumbent vendor as it was a better match for our needs.

Beyond quality and price, the selected vendor also offered an exceptional software suite for comprehensive network optimization and device access management. We viewed such tools as essential to helping us meet our performance and security goals without placing additional burdens on our limited IT staff.

With the new technology we can remotely monitor and manage every aspect of our network, including each access point (AP) at every site. This is critical for a WLAN that will eventually be spread across 26 locations serving 25,650 students, 1,500 teachers and 2,000 support staff members.

For example, with the management tools we can not only see how many devices are connected to an individual AP, but also view data about individual devices. In conjunction with other software that assists us with determining what websites are being accessed, these tools enable us to bounce certain devices off the network — or restrict a particular device altogether — based on the device’s behavior or other criteria. This is extremely important for security because the safety of our young people is priority one.

From a performance management perspective, we can optimize our network based on the data and analytics our management software provides. Naturally, this assists us with decision-making for allocating resources to achieve the desired end-user experience at each location. And, if there is an issue on the network, we can pinpoint the location or AP involved for fast troubleshooting and resolution.

Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age 

PHOTO © OLEKSIY MARK/SHUTTERSTOCK

No More Slates. Technology has become such an integral part of teaching and learning. Dysart Unified School District, Arizona, has received local, regional and national recognition for their efforts, including a Salute District award from the National School Boards Association. They encourage pupils to bring their own devices. With BYOD, students and educators can use dozens of instructional technologies, but there needs to be a network capable of handling that activity.

Our deployment strategy

To roll out our new WLAN, we started with all four of our comprehensive high schools, where BYOD and other access demands by students and educators is the highest. We also implemented the system at five elementary schools.

Because we’d already upgraded some schools with our previous manufacturer’s equipment, those schools will not be immediately transitioned. However, over time, every location will be moved to the new technology. Regardless, we hope to provide ubiquitous access at all facilities by late 2015.

Today, individuals at schools on the new WLAN express significantly higher satisfaction. Prior to the deployment, we received calls almost daily about limited availability. Now we get comments like “hey, no problem, we have more than we need.” We’re also seeing a demonstrable upswing in students engaging with technology for learning, such as elementary students creating multi-media digital presentations.

To put our Wi-Fi hardware expansion in perspective, each of the five WLAN-enabled elementary schools had about 19 APs before. Now, they have 80-90 each. At the high schools, each facility went from 50-60 APs to 120-130 APs.

In device terms, the elementary schools were previously limited to 250 devices accessing the network simultaneously and at the high schools it was 600. Now, with the combination of more APs and the advanced management software, the number of devices at each location is unlimited.

Additionally, we’re also leveraging the access management technology to divide our Wi-Fi into an internal instructional network and an external guest network. This enables us to grant guest devices access to the Internet while keeping our instructional systems secure. Further, we can designate which BYOD devices, if any, are permitted to access to our internal network.

Benefits abound

Overall, the benefits of our new setup are enabling a variety of organizational efficiencies, cost savings strategies and even revenue generation.

For instance, we’re now benchmarking online testing for all types of tests in all grades — not just standards assessments. This will save the district significant funds over using paper-based tests, whether it’s a fifth-grade spelling quiz or a 10th-grade composition exam. Also, the grading and data-gathering aspects of tests will be less time-consuming and error-prone. And, the exam results will not only be immediate but also integrated into our iPAL system so teachers can make the right decisions for each of the students in their classroom.

On the revenue side, we rent out our facilities such as our high school auditoriums to businesses and organizations for conferences and events. Previously, only a few dozen devices could access the Internet even though the auditoriums can hold 1,500 people. With our new WLAN a virtually unlimited number of devices now have access from within the auditorium and access is available anywhere on each high school’s campus. This ubiquitous Wi-Fi improves the marketability of our facilities and we’ve already received excellent feedback from our guests.

Moving forward, our new WLAN will assist with meeting other needs as they arise. One example is desktop video conferencing, which we’ll be developing for classrooms such as in a new charter school where a requirement is collaborating with others around the world.

As for Wi-Fi on our school buses, we are actively exploring options. We want to provide students with a mechanism to work collaboratively on homework, or other projects, as well as improve the travel experience overall. Plus, we can improve safety and security by including cameras and other technologies in the mix.

While the bus initiative is still under development — as it will also require the involvement of one or more 4G telecommunications carriers — we still needed to deploy the appropriate underlying WLAN infrastructure first. We now have the hardware and software technologies necessary to help us make further innovations, like school bus Wi-Fi, happen.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

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