Wireless woes

Why it's time to stop poor wireless coverage hindering progress in the classroom

By Steve Buet, Icomm Technologies 

The rise of technology in the classroom means that schools are now desperately reliant upon a strong wireless network. Despite this many are still inadequate, with poor wireless coverage hindering the use of devices such as laptops and tablets. Consequently, much of the new equipment that has been brought into schools is not being used to its full potential.  

In recent years the average number of wireless devices has increased from one or two to somewhere between three and five. This increase is mirrored in the classroom with the British Education Suppliers Association (BESA) predicting that the number of tablets used by pupils across the UK will increase from 721,000 tablets to over 946,000 by the end of 2016. As adoption of wireless devices increases, so does the demand for the infrastructure to support it, which is a cause for concern for many schools. 

The challenge

From users with multiple devices to the rise of BYOD in colleges and guest provisioning, wireless network utilisation has seen huge growth. But teachers still face a number of problems that are hindering the learning environment. One issue is that of too many people trying to connect at once. Typically, 30 students will sit down and turn on their laptops at the start of the lesson but this surge of activity can frequently mean that, 15 minutes in, there are still some devices unable to connect. This is having a huge impact on productivity in many schools, leaving teachers unable to deliver their lessons as planned.

To tackle this issue many wireless providers will mistakenly recommend the deployment of additional wireless access points in an attempt to offer maximum coverage and quality of connection. Yet deploying too many access points is almost as bad as too few, with devices battling to connect amidst an overly congested and conflicting air space.

Deploying too many access points is almost as bad as too few, with devices battling to connect amidst an overly congested and conflicting air space

Another common issue lies with users finding themselves disconnected without warning. This is particularly problematic at high schools and universities, where students and teaching staff move from classroom to classroom or around campus. It’s here that they are likely to encounter high signal interference which deters connectivity and speed of downloads, creating a hugely frustrating experience for teachers and students alike.

A further challenge to wireless connectivity in education can be the fabric of the buildings themselves. In old Victorian buildings, which often house schools, the materials used for construction are simply too dense for wireless signals to pass through. There are ways to tackle this problem but these are all too often quick fixes that won’t resolve issues in the long-term.

Lastly, many school buildings also have poor provision of data and power cabling. To cope with demand, new cables will often need to be installed to connect further wireless access points. This can be difficult to remedy where listed buildings are concerned and is not always fool-proof – if the cabling issue is not properly planned, the same issue can return further down the line. 

What schools can do to tackle these issues

When making the decision to purchase any wireless products, it’s important that educators look at the specific requirements of their site, along with user demands. Is your building listed? What’s the physical fabric like? How many pupils are currently accessing wireless devices? Every school is built differently and will have different wireless demands. It’s important that you base any purchases on what works for you, rather than mimicking what’s been successful elsewhere.

As well as considering what you need now, it’s equally important to consider future requirements. Make sure that wireless surveys are conducted in parallel with a long term IT strategy. You may have a concrete idea of the number of students currently using a wireless device but how do you expect this to grow in the next five to 10 years? 

Some technologies align themselves well to future wireless expansion whereas others quite simply do not.  Simply providing lots of access points will not guarantee effective delivery of wireless services, and will not solve the problem of Victorian buildings with walls that hinder the propagation of wireless.

There is a solution to the problem of Victorian architecture however.  Employ a specialist to install cutting edge antenna technology, which can help to maximise coverage. This means older buildings can still be fully supported without the need to install hundreds of access points. 

Of course, in order to know which solution will work best, schools need to have a firm grasp of the latest technology and what they are want from a wireless network. A couple of must-have considerations should include: 

  • the type of devices that are being used
  • the applications it will need to support
  • the size of the area needing coverage
  • the total number and density of user devices

While all these factors should be taken into consideration, it can be difficult to navigate without a guiding hand. Asking for a free site survey from a supplier is always a good first step that allows you to talk through any issues as well as what options are available and how they can be overcome. In doing so, educators can overcome any wireless woes and maximise the potential of technology.