Wi-Fi in education: what do schools need now?

New devices and teaching styles have lead to more reliance on a good connection, says Perry Correll

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, campus IT teams need both. And 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 campus IT teams 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 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.

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. Keep in mind that if just one device connects in an auditorium, it gets 100% of the bandwidth. If 200 devices connect, they each get a mere .5% of the bandwidth. So rather than asking vendors how many devices can connect to an access point, find out how many can connect with a good experience.
  • 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. That’s because the 5GHz band has 24 available channels, compared to just three for the 2.4GHz band. Avoid access points that are rigidly configured with one 2.4 GHz and one 5GHz radio because you’ll be paying for more 2.4GHz radios than you need. Instead, look for access points with software-programmable radios that you can configure for either 2.4GHz or 5GHz band with a click. You can gradually increase the percentage of 5GHz radios as more students start using newer devices.
  • The ability to assign priority to educational applications over, say, Facebook or app downloads. Suppose Apple comes out with a new version of iOS on Monday morning and 1,000 students start a download. You can prevent the downloads from interfering with classroom Wi-Fi performance if your management interface lets you assign priority to traffic based on the application or time of day. You might want to limit application downloads to five to 10 percent of network traffic, for example. You might want to limit the use of social media applications to 4p.m or later in classrooms, but allow use anytime in the dorms. Application control doesn’t block traffic entirely; it simply favors he relatively small percent of all campus traffic that pertains to learning and research. 

2. Simple onboarding

Think ahead to the first day of the next school term. Hundreds or thousands of students will arrive with multiple Wi-Fi devices—perhaps a laptop, tablet, smartphone, gaming device, and fitness bracelet. And students will expect to connect right away.  

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.

Another way to keep costs down is to choose a solution that can support new wireless standards, such as 802.11ac Wave 2, with a simple software upgrade. Software-upgradeable radios prolong the life of your Wi-Fi network.

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

Perry Correll is Principal Technologist, Xirrus



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