If you still use a mom-and-pop approach to school computer networks, your network’s days are numbered.

Because we at JDL work with school networks all the time, we’ve learned to distill theory down to a few undeniable truths. We’ve learned, for instance, exactly what happens to technology in K-12 school systems. And chief among these truths is this: Schools don’t use networks the same way business does.

In the typical office, a worker might employ a data base or spreadsheet fairly often, use a word processor regularly, transfer print files, work with eMail twice a day, and browse the web occasionally.

Students, on the other hand, are engaged in learning, and they use networks quite differently.

A school’s network undergoes wave after wave of peak loads, every 50 minutes, throughout the school day. This occurs each time a class marches in, sits down, and starts up–en masse –whatever applications the teacher happens to specify for the task at hand. And that’s just for starters.

Networks with dual personalities

Networks for K-12 schools and districts have dual personalities. One aspect of the school network relates to how it’s used for learning. This encompasses classroom, lab, and school access to the internet and world wide web. In its learning aspect, the network also is designed for teachers. They use it to prepare for and deliver lessons, handle school reporting needs, and conduct other class business.

Then comes the second aspect of the school network. This is where the network is used for business, as a data-intensive system tailored for the administrators and support staff who make schools work.

Here, high traffic is the norm, as administrators and staff members in departments, office buildings, and schools aggregate and analyze various data. Memo, calendar, and eMail systems are some of the productivity tools common to the business aspect of the network.

Now, to be effective, this dual-purpose network, along with its intranet, must bring together capacity, flexibility, and security–all within a seamless environment that’s easy for everyone to use, including children. It’s no wonder not many system designers get it entirely right.

“Seven-11” networks

All too often, a school ends up with a “Seven-11”-style network. Like a corner mini-market, it’s tailored for people who run in to grab some milk and bread–or, in this case, to copy a file and send an eMail message. They breeze in, do their business and then they’re out the door and gone.

Such Seven-11-style networks, favored by business integrators, best handle intermittent traffic.

But what would happen if, say, 30 people tried to use the mini-market all at once? Folks would get backed up, and everything would stall.

That’s exactly what happens to schools that try the Seven-11 approach to networks. That’s why it’s so vital that you work with a systems integrator who fully understands the pitfalls of a Seven-11-style network in education.

But the pressure is mounting. And even networks that were well-designed in their day are reaching the maximum of their capacity.

Typically, the workload of a school network grows in three ways. More computers are added as funding allows. More users are added constantly. And increasingly, those who use the network become more technologically proficient, thus increasing the demands they make on the system. As sophistication grows, more applications are being run over the network with more frequency and more intensity.

Now add in the web

The result is classrooms and libraries full of students all accessing the network at once. That’s now become the norm, incidentally, not the exception. And as teachers make more effective use of technology, add audio clips, graphics, animations and movies–all running in addition to the older applications. And now comes videoconferencing, so valuable for teacher training and for augmenting class offerings. This adds yet another challenge for the school network. Soon, you’ll be working with still more advances, such as video eMail, and these will tax the network resources even further.

The bottom-line: You need to develop a thorough knowledge of the network, its uses and capacities.

That’s why our company has distilled its extensive knowledge of K-12 networks into a 16-hour training curriculum detailing the proper planning, design, and implementation of a K-12 Local Area Network. The program is available in a train-the-trainer format. (JDL also offers training in security policy planning for school intranets and in evaluation and design for school Network Operating Systems.) Here’s the point: It’s time you gained a full understanding of the options and capabilities of school networks.