An IT director describes how his team unleashed teaching and learning by revamping their infrastructure
Today, education is far more flexible and collaborative than a generation ago, and technology is key in enabling teachers to quickly adapt lesson plans to suit the moment’s activity. Having multiple screens that a teacher or student can wirelessly project to, along with the ability to switch between sources in seconds, means that teachers aren’t tied to the front of the classroom any more. They are free to roam around to small groups, to see what students are working on simultaneously, and to call attention to particularly high-quality work or ideas that challenge and stimulate.
But all that technology does students little good if it can’t function properly because your school’s IT infrastructure isn’t up to the job. At Central Coast Grammar School in Australia, when Director of Teaching and Learning Damon Cooper pushed for more flexible and collaborative classrooms, we knew we would have to redefine our infrastructure.
Prototyping a vision with spare parts
For more than a year, Cooper piloted his vision of multi-screen classrooms by piecing together whatever spare parts we had on hand. If I retired a screen from another part of the school or had a spare from a bulk purchase, he wanted it. Over that period, Cooper worked closely with me to prototype his vision. That work functioned as a proof of concept and fit nicely with our strategic plan, which called for an increased focus on digital literacy, greater collaboration, and developing students who can produce and publish digital work.
Once Cooper could show the teaching and learning benefits of multi-screen classrooms, he convinced his colleagues to push for a refurbishment that would eventually include collapsible walls for combining classrooms for team teaching, writable glass panels for visual learning, a film studio to allow students to demonstrate what they are learning through multimedia production, and, of course, multi-screen classrooms to showcase those productions and enable student collaboration.
Understanding the need
Like any school, we weren’t looking at introducing multi-screen classrooms onto a blank slate. We already had a significant challenge in supporting the tools our teachers and students were using. We are 1:1 with a mix of devices: iPads for grades 1–3, Windows 10 laptops for grades 4–9, and a BYOD program for grades 10–12. For faculty and staff, we offer Windows 10 2-in-1 tablets and also support the smartphones and tablets that most of the faculty and staff bring in with them.
Our wireless platform and web-filtering system had to be robust, easy to use, and device- and operating-system agnostic to support that variety. We knew that would also be true for our wireless video projection (WVP) platform. Even our youngest students would need to be able to use it, after all.
Cooper’s early work showed us that our existing wireless platform couldn’t cope with WVP at the quality we needed across the school, so once we had approval to refurbish B Block, the area of the school we decided to focus on, we got serious about finding the right wireless, networking, and WVP platforms.
Finding the tools
We tested four major wireless, three major networking, and nine WVP platforms. All told, we tried about 100 different combinations, all with lots of different devices—including products from HP, Dell, Microsoft, and Apple—running the full gamut of laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
It was important that our wireless system be an integrated solution with a single management interface, which ruled out multi-vendor network and wireless solutions.
Choosing a wireless networking system became a two-horse race, with Ubiquiti becoming our provider. It was the only product that could balance the wireless access point (WAP) load based on bandwidth instead of user connections. In a situation in which you have the same number of students on two WAPs that are balanced only according to connections but several students are using the WVP on one, that WAP will drop packets while the other has idle capacity. If they can balance according to bandwidth instead, the load is shared and quality improved.
We began our search for an appropriate WVP platform with clear priorities in mind:
- Quality and performance
- Reliability and support
- Ease of use for staff and students
- Cross-platform compatibility
With those criteria in mind, we tested a range of WVP products. Some were very good in their own ecosystem but poor across all operating systems and hardware platforms. Others lacked necessary features like central management. Imagine handling 150 firmware updates manually—or worse, having them auto-update and break your WVP so you have to manually fix each one via firmware rollback or configuration modification. That’s the stuff IT nightmares are made of.
Eventually, we settled on Vivi because it combines high-video quality with centralized management and designed-for-education features that make it simple for a teacher to allow or prevent a student from projecting their screen to one or all screens in a classroom. The ability to extend (not just mirror) a screen allows teachers to multitask by streaming a video while marking an attendance roll, for example, or presenting slides while viewing speaking notes. The touch return feature allows junior school teachers to run interactive projectors or touchscreens and be mobile in the classroom.
Fantastic video quality is great—and necessary—but it comes with bandwidth requirements of around 100 mbps per stream. Supporting that much data meant adding more wi-fi in a higher-density space than schools and office buildings typically have, and that in turn meant we had to significantly increase wireless performance.
Remaking the capability
I designed copper mesh shielding to split B Block into four zones, a world-first building design, which allowed us to pack in 24 5GHz WAPs running 40MHz channels to serve 45 screens and Vivis. B Block has two 10Gb fiber connections to our primary data center, while all other buildings, which don’t have multi-screen classrooms, only have single 10Gb fiber cables.
The shielding and bandwidth were only necessary because the multi-screen classrooms created a high-density layout with many sources and screens in use simultaneously. With more space between the rooms or a single screen per class, we could have gotten away with less bandwidth and no copper shielding.
Our primary data center features a generator backup and we have a secondary data center with an uninterruptible power supply also on site. We run about 60 virtual servers across eight physical Dell servers with approximately 100 CPU cores and 1TB of RAM. We have a few hundred TB of storage across SAN tiers of SSD, SAS, and SATA, all from Dell. More than 60 enterprise switches, including three different models from UniFi, give us good network capability, and 150 WAPs, also from UniFi, provide both excellent site coverage and high throughput.
We figured out really early during our WVP testing that the entire path—device to WAP to network switch to cable to WVP—was critical in resulting video quality. Schools don’t need to wipe out their existing network and wi-fi hardware to adopt a WVP, but regardless of the platform they choose, you can’t simply install it and go without considering the other elements.
Untethering the classroom
We refurbished B block over a holiday break, and our high school students were downloading and connecting their smartphones and laptops via the WVP app within minutes of returning to campus. When you have thousands of devices on the network, it has to “just work” all the time or the impact is so high that staff and students will stop using it.
But with a little determination, solid planning, and the willingness to reimagine what your school’s IT capabilities can be, unleashing the screens—and the learning—is easily manageable.