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Back to class: Can your school network handle it?

Here are five pain points to double-check as your school network braces for the return of students and teachers this year

Traditional teaching methods are fading, replaced with digital learning initiatives and mobile computing. Embracing this tech-friendly environment is more complicated than finding room in the budget for new laptops, Chromebooks, or iPads. IT administrators and schools as a whole need to know how new devices will impact an existing school network, and what work needs to be done to ensure the network grows along with, or faster than, new digital learning demands.

Related content: 3 things to know about school network security

Here are five important practices for optimized Wi-Fi performance.

Workflow processes for troubleshooting

There are a few different troubleshooting approaches. They include the manual effort: working from the top down; working from the bottom up; comparing devices that are working well with devices that are malfunctioning; or following packets from source to destination.

Whatever approach is taken will require the same basic elements: identify the problem by gathering information and questioning users, analyze the information, form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and, if the problem isn’t resolved, begin again.

There are now different monitoring and analytical tools that will perform these actions for IT automatically, enabling quicker mean time to resolution.

Discovering devices

There are an almost endless number of devices that could connect to a school network. This includes personal devices, classroom devices, and school-wide IoT devices, such as thermostats, printers, and security systems.

Each device is unique: some will be only 2.4GHz compliant; some will support higher spatial streams and data rates; some will be used frequently, others only rarely, etc., but they will all compete for airtime and impact the performance of the network.

To keep things running optimally:
● Provide, and enforce, a BYOD policy. This can include not allowing students and staff to bring their own devices, or it can allow only certain devices. However, industry practice is moving towards a service that is 2.4 GHz only while the digital learning activities are on 5 GHz. Choose whatever is right for your school.
● Monitor and identify all devices on the school network, and what they are doing. Tools that offer device fingerprinting and recognition support 100 percent network visibility. This enables IT teams to know exactly what the network currently supports, and how it needs to grow, as well as identify which devices experience problems and how best to resolve any issues. If the tool can give historical data on each device, even better. This allows the quick resolution of those pesky intermittent issues.

Increasing school network security

Only 12 percent of districts have a full-time staff person dedicated to school network security. This is a concern in a time when cyber attacks are growing. To increase network security:
● Add security safeguards to vendor negotiations. Make sure that contracts outline who is responsible for preventing and detecting breaches, and what actionable steps will be taken if a problem occurs. This helps understaffed districts by asking outside companies to provide protections.
● Employ constant network monitoring. Periodic monitoring might catch an issue, but it also might not, and, if caught, it can be difficult to determine when the breach first occurred. Constant monitoring, achieved with the use of network tests, ensures that nothing on the network goes unnoticed. This will enable faster response times for breaches as well as proactive and preventive maintenance work.
● Provide training and guidance for staff and students to prevent anyone falling victim to phishing scams. Students might not have access to sensitive information on a school’s network, but including them in some level of training will only be beneficial. After all, these attacks aren’t likely to disappear in their lifetime.

Network health

Be proactive. This cannot be stressed enough. A network monitoring tool, or analytics tool, with proactive detection and notification is the key to having a reliable, optimized network. Proactive systems solve problems before they’re impacting network health, meaning far less downtime for students and staff. Once again, this is also the time for constant monitoring. Everyone in IT knows how time-consuming and challenging it is to dig through logs for the answers to an issue that occurred last week. Constant school network monitoring and analysis remove mystery and confusion, and save everyone valuable time.

Some potential red flags for Wi-Fi network health include:
● High airtime utilization – Wi-Fi is a shared access technology and there is a limited amount of capacity available.
● Intermittent RF interference caused by hotspots or non-Wi-Fi devices like microwaves.
● High percent of broadcast traffic – Large amounts of broadcast traffic can reduce the amount of capacity for end-user applications.
● Intermittent client connectivity/performance issues caused by network issues like DHCP server or client software.

Increasing performance and coverage

As a general rule of thumb, you want to look at where your school will be in three to five years, and then build a network that will support those future needs. Defining network needs makes it easier to build and maintain an optimized network while working within a budget. Remember that each school in a district will have different needs, and different challenges.
● Identify how many people will use the network and how that number could change over three to five years.
● Determine the services the network needs to support (streaming to interactive whiteboards, peer-to-peer communication between devices, IoT devices, etc.).
● Define the density of APs in a school and the size of the VLANs.
● Reduce crowded channels and channel overlap. Interference caused by devices and APs competing for airtime is a quick way to bog down the network. Improve performance with an analytics tool that will identify all interference issues, and provide actionable steps for resolution.
● Monitor airtime utilization. A high baseline utilization is a sign of a network issue. It can be caused by a number of factors, and will impact network performance. Monitor a network 24/7/365 to identify what is causing high utilization, and how to resolve it.

Wi-Fi networks are not-a-one-size-fits-all design. School administrators and IT staff must have these important conversations, and procedures in place, to ensure their Wi-Fi networks can accommodate digital learning initiatives without sacrificing security or performance.

Considering these pain points throughout planning and implementation can make the digital learning and 1:1 computing transition much easier and more successful than ever before, all while giving school districts, and their respective IT staff, peace of mind.

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