How to meet increasing Wi-Fi demands in education

Perry Correll shares his advice on the most important Wi-Fi requirements for the education sector

IT teams in educational institutions are the superstars of Wi-Fi. While corporate IT teams typically focus either on high performance or high-density coverage, IT teams in education need both. Where else besides schools and higher education might IT teams need to onboard thousands of new users—each with multiple devices—several times a year?

Now IT teams within education face new challenges. Integration of Wi-Fi into the curriculum raises the importance of reliability, Bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies and the Internet of Things (IoT) increase network load and new wireless standards like 802.11ac Wave 2 increase the importance of cost-effective upgrades. To overcome these challenges, look for a Wi-Fi solution that meets the following requirements.

Requirement 1: Reliable experience, no matter how many other devices are on the network

Reliable Wi-Fi has become an essential part of the learning experience. The next time you’re at a trade show, note the number of exhibitors offering online classroom software and electronic textbooks. Tablets with wireless projectors are replacing whiteboards. Schools and colleges are “flipping” the classroom—assigning students to watch video lectures before class and allocating class time for interactive exercises. In language classes, small groups interact with native speakers via video on laptops or mobile devices. 

To deliver a reliable Wi-Fi experience, make sure your network provides these three capabilities:

  • High-density coverage in areas such as lecture halls, stadiums, gymnasiums, and cafeterias.
  • A flexible ratio of 5GHz to 2.4GHz radios. The experience is best when you have enough 5GHz radios for every 5GHz-capable device—usually 70-90% of the total.
  • The ability to assign priority to educational applications over, say, Facebook or app downloads.

Requirement 2: Simple onboarding

Think ahead to the first day of the next term. Hundreds or thousands of students will arrive with multiple Wi-Fi devices and expect to connect right away. Sending the entire student body to the IT department to register their devices isn’t practical. An innovative solution from Xirrus allows you to email students an individualised passkey before the first day of class. The email includes a link to the website where students can register their devices by simply entering their name and passkey—with no IT involvement. The solution identifies the device and automatically connects it. 

The self-registration solution also helps to discourage students from sharing their passkey with non-students by limiting the number of devices per student. If your limit is four devices, a student who attempts to register a fifth device is prompted to de-register another.

Requirement 3: Low total cost of ownership

To keep capital costs down, look for a solution that provides coverage with the fewest number of access points. Some vendors’ solutions require dozens of access points in large lecture halls, where others provide the same coverage with only a couple of access points. The difference is the number of radios per access point. Deploying fewer access points lowers hardware costs as well as installation, cabling, and ongoing management costs.

More devices and greater reliance on Wi-Fi for learning imposes a much greater burden on Wi-Fi networks. The good news is that innovative Wi-Fi solutions help to overcome these challenges.

Perry Correll is Principal Technologist at the California-based Wi-Fi company, Xirrus.

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