Why 2016 is the year digital classrooms become the dominant paradigm and what infrastructure steps schools should take to be a part of it.
GUEST COLUMN | by Daniel Rivera
For some years, K-12 educators and experts have discussed the coming of “the digital classroom” with many schools deploying various types of technologies in an effort to turn the vision into reality. Although 90 percent of teachers now report technology is having a positive effect on student participation, most classrooms still look the same as they did 50 years ago. But, in 2016, that’s about to change.
Although 90 percent of teachers now report technology is having a positive effect on student participation, most classrooms still look the same as they did 50 years ago. But, in 2016, that’s about to change.
Historically, the classroom has reflected the business world. For example, the one-room schoolhouse for our agrarian society gave way to the needs of the industrial revolution, with students divided by grade level and rows of desks, mirroring a factory assembly line.
Today, workplaces are rapidly becoming collaborative spaces, with expectations employees will work in teams and alternate between leadership and contribution roles. Naturally, K-12 schools are evolving to prepare students for these new workday requirements with collaborative classrooms, project-based learning and the movement toward “learners” and “facilitators” rather than students and teachers.
So why is 2016 the year when digital classrooms make the leap from experimental to mainstream? Although the short answer is mobility, it’s really about a convergence of factors. Here’s what you need to know to help your school make the transformation successfully.
Digital Curriculums Have Arrived. When talk of the digital classrooms began, the vision was exciting but teachers lacked curriculum to make it happen. Then research on digital curricula began and, today, many accredited options are available.
Educator Tech Proficiency Has Reached Critical Mass. Everyone knows that smartphones and tablets have fundamentally changed societies around the world. It’s no different in education. Gone are the days when only the youngest or most intrepid teachers became excited about technology. However, this doesn’t negate the value of professional development. Quite the opposite, as training remains critical.
Mobile Devices Prove the Perfect Classroom Tools. Unlike desktop computers, which students had to share, today’s powerful and ubiquitous mobile devices are proving the perfect tools for classroom learning. Whether schools provide mobile devices, or leverage BYOD, there’s no more time wasted fiddling with misbehaving desktop machines.
Instead, today’s devices are fast and easy to use. Want to take a poll? Ask everyone to whip out their smartphone. Need to share a student’s screen to help make a point? Just send it to the classroom projector or flat panel display.
Modern Wi-Fi Systems Provide the Conduit. Mobile devices can perform their magic when robust, secure Wi-Fi networks supply the high-performance infrastructure required to handle the digital load. Fortunately, modern Wi-Fi systems pack the power required. (For details, see “5 Tips for Enabling Digital Classrooms,” below.)
E-rate Supplies the Funding. Unlike years past, in 2015 all schools that submitted timely and eligible E-rate applications will receive funding for their “Category 2” Wi-Fi infrastructure projects. Best of all, this trend is expected to continue in 2016 and beyond. In other words, it’s definitely worth dedicating resources to the application process because the supply of available funds now matches the demand.
5 Tips for Enabling Digital Classrooms
To ensure their schools can fully adopt the digital classroom paradigm, most K-12 institutions will need to modernize their Wi-Fi. The following recommendations will help schools make the right investments.
1) Plan for Increasing Device Densities
Just a few years ago, K-12 schools focused on ensuring Wi-Fi coverage. Now, it’s all about capacity. With K-12 learners and facilitators utilizing an average of two devices each, it’s wise to plan for at least 60 simultaneous connections per 30-student classroom.
2) Invest in 802.11ac
Systems based on the latest IEEE wireless standard, 802.11ac, provide wire-like experiences, earning them the nickname “Gigabit Wi-Fi.” The first generation of 802.11ac access points (APs), called Wave 1, improve wireless speeds by about 3X – versus the previous 801.11n standard – delivering data rates of up to 1.3 Gbps.
As a future-proofing strategy, some schools are eyeing the next generation of 802.11ac APs, known as Wave 2. Initially boosting Wi-Fi speeds to 1.7Gbps, up 30 percent over Wave 1, Wave 2 could usher in 3.4 Gbps data rates as the related FCC regulations evolve.
3) Leverage a Phased or Tiered Approach
Although K-12 IT departments are familiar with phased deployments, a tiered approach offers another option. In short, a tiered approach matches use cases with corresponding APs. For example, Wave 1 APs may be appropriate in lower-density administrative offices. Wave 2 APs are more suitable for high-density spaces, such as auditoriums and large testing areas.
4) Upgrade to Multi-Gigabit Switches
Gaining all the benefits of Gigabit Wi-Fi requires appropriate engineering, from APs to the data center core. This can mean updating to multi-gigabit Ethernet edge switches, including emerging solutions that can automatically detect and provide the proper connection such as 1, 2.5, 5 or 10GigE. This technology results from work by the NBASE-T and MGBASE-T technology alliances, which the IEEE is utilizing to create the 802.3bz Ethernet specification.
Most importantly, multi-gig switches enable deploying Wave 2 using existing Cat 5e/Cat 6 cabling – a significant savings over running new cable – as we expect to see vendors introducing APs with 2.5GigE uplinks in 2016. Thus, it’s appropriate to consider multi-gig switches during your next wired infrastructure refresh.
5) Adopt Robust Wi-Fi Security & Optimization Tools
To ensure lean K-12 IT departments can provide a secure mobile environment while efficiently managing hundreds of APs and user devices, robust administrative tools are critical. This includes software to automate Wi-Fi network access, supplying the proper credentials to people and devices, as well as tools to keep the network running at peak performance. Robust offerings also provide multi-vendor support to enable unified administration of wired and wireless networks – within a single pane of glass.
Next Up: Location-Awareness
Whether freeing up learning time for productive uses or augmenting security, location-aware technology is the next step in wireless innovations. With location-awareness, teachers can eliminate wasted time taking attendance and administrators can see exactly who is on campus, and where, at any moment. With new solutions offering improved management options, 2016 may be the year to take a closer look.
Regardless of your specific situation, it’s an exciting time in the digital classroom. With adequate federal, state and local funding, along with improved Wi-Fi infrastructure options, the coming year will see more schools empowering their learners and facilitators in more ways than ever before.
Dan Rivera is a product marketing manager and E-rate expert for Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. Dan’s career in the information technology industry spans over 25 years, during which he focused on the Primary Education Sector. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org