Secondary schools – how to get your IT network set for summer

by Patrick Hirscher, EMEA wireless market development manager at Zyxel

Technology has transformed the UK’s education sector, where secondary schools have the greatest need for technological content in the classroom. Interactive smart boards, a laptop/tablet for every child, a plethora of educational material online and in the cloud, pupils routinely bringing their own connected devices to school – these are just a few of the many demands now made on secondary school networks every day.

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However, in the wake of economic austerity this advancement has not been accompanied by dedicated network management resource within schools, which means IT responsibilities often fall to over-worked teachers who lack relevant experience. In fact, a recent survey found that just 15% of teachers felt confident using technology and only 35% had been trained in relevant skills.

The often-seen model (particularly common in primary schools) whereby the external network manager comes in once a week to fix things is often unfit for purpose. A week is a long time in IT and a lot can go wrong with devices, security and networks during that time. Schools that have streamlined network management in the cloud can at least access the relevant data and make changes whenever they need to. Schools that have to wait for the ‘IT person’ to visit may be putting vital data, legal compliance and even their ability to teach the curriculum at risk.

The often-seen model (particularly common in primary schools) whereby the external network manager comes in once a week to fix things is often unfit for purpose.

Demands on the school network don’t only come from the classroom, but from the school’s office and elsewhere. Many software providers have turned their backs on downloadable files and now provide their services only on subscription and in a cloud-based format. That gives office and teaching staff little choice but to connect if they want to write a letter, plan a lesson or collate exam results.

This situation is causing headaches for many schools, which must now operate as modern concerns using legacy networks and hardware. There is little money in schools to replace the hardware or to provide more of the on-site expert management that would relieve the burden on non-network savvy staff, but there are network management solutions in the cloud. If schools choose their network partners carefully and leverage the latest in cloud-based network management, they stand to gain a great deal, both in terms of staff time recouped and cost savings.

Why can’t school networks cope?

Networks in secondary schools generally face three key challenges, which are:

  • Bandwidth/availability
  • Security/safeguarding
  • Flexibility/responsivity and associated resource costs.

Bandwidth/availability is often a problem in secondary schools because they may have as many users connecting simultaneously as a business, but few schools have optimised their networks (or even considered them) to the extent that a moderately-sized or even small business would. The result is often a very binary on/off network that cannot flex in response to patterns of use, and users who cannot get online when they need to. This situation also leads to wasted resource, since time, learning and power are all wasted when the network doesn’t respond promptly.

Young people will try to connect their own devices, with levels of cybersecurity, and possibly an interesting array of viruses and malware, to the school’s network.

Security and safeguarding are particular issues for schools. This is because (a) schools have, by definition, a particularly vulnerable population (young people) to which they owe both a moral and legal duty of care and (b) many of those young people will try to connect their own devices, with levels of cybersecurity, and possibly an interesting array of viruses and malware, to the school’s network.

This situation is an inevitability of modern life and as unavoidable as it is dangerous, so schools have no choice but to ensure robust protection. Yet according to recent reportsmost UK schools are not currently complying with GDPR, which sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, in terms of both legal/financial and personal repercussions.

The question is, how can schools ensure better protection, and how do they optimise networks to better serve the needs of a modern education?

Tips for a better school network

  • Know your network traffic– school networks tend to experience peaks and troughs throughout the day, week and year. If the IT team knows exactly when these occur, they can provision accordingly and minimise wasted resource. Does the school’s network currently allow them to access this information quickly and easily? If not, it’s time to fix that.
  • Centralised and remote management– there are many great things about cloud computing, and this is one of them. Having centralised network management that can be remotely accessed means the school’s IT team has no excuse for failing to manage traffic or fix glitches quickly. This facility can be used to create a truly bespoke educational experience, for example by maximising provision in one area (a specific classroom, for example) as needed.
  • Security– a centralised management point combined with an understanding of network traffic makes security enforcement easier and more robust. Can your school remotely control the security of your network, and alter it in response to threats? Can your IT team see the threats, anomalous behaviours and/or changes in patterns of use? If not, why not?
  • GDPR compliance – a better understanding of network traffic and centralised management tools make GDPR compliance much easier and, with the right system, straightforward to report to the relevant authorities.
  • Segmentation– can your school separate streams of network traffic? This is important for both security and efficiency.
  • Energy efficiency– many schools are closed for extended periods, eg the summer holidays, and being able to power down the network during that time can reduce energy bills. Can your network do that, quickly and easily?

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There is, unquestionably, a gap between what schools need to do with their networks and what they can achieve if they stick with the old familiar management styles. Bridging this gap is less a matter of resource than of attitude. If schools can take a business-like approach to their networks, looking to the cloud for gold standard control, performance and resource management, the outcomes are likely to benefit both staff and pupils.