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The new school approach: The impact of edtech on the network

Times are changing for the education sector... and we need to make sure our networks can handle it

Posted by Hannah Vickers | September 03, 2017 | Secondary

By Cam Cullen, VP of Global Marketing at Procera Networks

The education sector is in a state of flux. UK schools are spending £900 million on education technology each year and the global market is estimated to hit more than £129 billion by 2020. Much of this money is being directed towards services and applications to help students learn new skills more quickly and easily than with the old school textbook approach, and the impact is being felt not only by those in education, but also by the tech industry at large.

For example, many schools and higher education institutions are making iPads an integral part of their teaching efforts. You don’t need to look very hard to find examples of schools that have introduced a 1:1 iPad program, ensuring there’s at least one device available per student. And this has not gone unnoticed by tech giants. In fact, it’s reached the point where Apple’s CEO recently mentioned a school district in Minnesota in the company’s latest quarterly earnings call, highlighting them an example of how this trend is driving growth in Silicon Valley too.

It’s evidently good news for those on the receiving end, especially as there’s a lot of data to show the benefits of engaging students in this way. But for the network managers responsible for overseeing higher education networks, the rise in edtech spending across the board poses their biggest challenge yet.

The network manager’s headache

As is often the case when it comes to new technology, many of the latest edtech solutions rely on an active Internet connection. All those extra devices, services, apps and other systems being introduced present their own challenges for managing what’s already a very complex network environment.

As we continue to experience the death of the textbook, with educational apps and digital tools transforming the state of modern learning, it’s putting tremendous strain on the networks that power them

This challenge isn’t exclusive to certain age groups either and has instead become a double-edged sword for schools, colleges, universities, and any other higher education institution. As we continue to experience the death of the textbook, with educational apps and digital tools transforming the state of modern learning, it’s putting tremendous strain on the networks that power them.

Tackling this problem depends on a number of different factors. First and foremost, network and IT professionals responsible for higher education networks need to have end-to-end visibility into all new services, devices, and platforms likely to cause a surge in demand. This will help to alleviate concerns with poor network performance and tackle instances where this could impact the learning experience, particularly for lessons or tuition that depends on network access. It’s especially true in the classroom, where prioritising the right devices and applications can significantly enhance the student experience.

In the same vein, it’s also essential to know when and where a surge in network traffic is likely to occur, which comes back around to the pressing need to be able to identify specific applications and use cases on the network. After all, it’s only by having access to this powerful level of actionable data that IT professionals will be able to meet the variable demands of modern education networks, rather than simply serving a small subset of applications and users that are using huge amounts of data and hogging the available bandwidth.

With the increase in connected devices, whether it’s IoT, wearables, or mobile devices, the security risks have also increased dramatically. Providing visibility and mitigation control at the user and application layer gives defence in depth for network administrators to handle surges caused by malware or infected devices.

Visibility and control: The DPI looking glass

Network intelligence and traffic management tools, supported by Deep Packet Inspection technology, are therefore vital, especially as traffic becomes encrypted. Granted, the need has always been there, but it’s now even more important given the current period of transformation seen in the education sector and steady increase the number of encrypted applications overall.

Not only has this level of network intelligence become essential for unlocking the data needed to make monitoring and effectively managing these networks a reality, it also makes it possible for the people that manage them to see what data is flowing across the network in real time, to prioritise traffic where appropriate, and to identify when and where the network is congested, in order to automate steps for addressing the problem.

Campus and higher education networks tend to have a mixture of professional and leisure traffic, and need to treat traffic differently in the residence halls than in the classroom.

Once educational institutions have these systems in place, it not only becomes easier to detect and manage malicious traffic and user behaviour, but also to restrict access based on different classes of users. Campus and higher education networks tend to have a mixture of professional and leisure traffic, and need to treat traffic differently in the residence halls than in the classroom. DPI systems can automatically adjust policies in accordance with the end user’s role on the network, their location, provide content filtering for regulatory compliance, and prevent students from accessing social media or other blocked sites in the classroom, for example, while still giving full access to faculty members.

The QoE education 

No two networks are the same, and nowhere is that more applicable than when it comes to education. Whether it’s maintaining a consistent QoE among a varied user base that’s using the network for a number of different purposes – from streaming video to VoIP to online gaming to file sharing – it’s essential to have real-time data insights needed to mitigate the risk of poor performance or downtime. Particularly when you consider how existing network traffic needs to be offset against countless new edtech deployments.

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