Public schools upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 to future-proof their networks

The new standard can handle a lot of users concentrated in one spot.

Why WPA3 is necessary to secure Wi-Fi 6 / 802.11ax networks

Superintendent Michele M. Orner, Ed.D., had 2,200 students, almost as many iPads, and an ancient Wi-Fi network on the Octorara Area School District campus of 50-year-old buildings.

The first step in her larger plan to transform teaching through instructional technology was a  new Wi-Fi network that could handle all those users and devices at the K-12 district about 90 minutes west of Philadelphia.

"It's the first thing that has to change because if the network has aged out, you'll just frustrate kids and teachers, and then taxpayers are going to ask why you wasted $1 million on new devices that kids can't use," Orner said.
The district started providing an iPad for every junior high and high school student about five years ago. The school is expanding this one-to-one plan to include kindergarten and elementary students and moving state testing to an online format, increasing the demand for connectivity even more.

The school's director of IT Rob Czetli said he chose Wi-Fi 6 to replace a system that dated to before Wi-Fi generations had names.  

"The HVAC and everything is on our network and we wanted to go with something that was future-proof," he said.

Czetli said that the district chose Aruba because the company offered Wi-Fi 6. The installation process was done in about two weeks while school was in session.

Tom Kouns, director of infrastructure technologies at Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Indiana, said his district chose Wi-Fi 6 for the network at a new elementary school with 700 students. Kouns said WiFi 6 was the best choice for the school's collaborative learning environment. 
"We have large collaboration areas with multiple classrooms getting together which means there are hundreds of kids in one area," he said.

Brandon Butler, a senior network infrastructure research analyst at IDC, said that Wi-Fi 6 is a great fit for school networks because of its ability to provide high-levels of Wi-Fi performance to multiple users at once. 

"This makes Wi-Fi 6 ideal for dense Wi-Fi environments where multiple clients are using the network simultaneously, such as auditoriums, cafeterias, stadiums, student unions and lecture halls," Butler said.

He expects education to be one of the major verticals that will deploy Wi-Fi 6, including K-12 and colleges and universities.

Kouns said Wi-Fi 6 also will give the school enough flexibility to add more smart devices and IoT sensors as the technology infrastructure grows.

"In a public school environment, we don't have the luxury to upgrade Wi-Fi each year," he said.
"We have to be diligent with planning so that we can get five to seven years of work out of the infrastructure."

IDC's Butler said that Wi-Fi 6 infrastructure components are more expensive compared to earlier generation Wi-Fi products. Although adoption rates are low because the technology became widely available in mid-2019, IDC predicts that Wi-Fi 6 adoption rates will increase significantly in 2020 and beyond.

Tech coach helped teachers

Octorara superintendent Orner said the school's education technology committee led the WiFi 6 migration. IT director Czetli and the school's director of curriculum and instruction led the committee, which includes parents, school board members, building principals, and teachers. Orner said that being on the committee helped school board members justify the $1.3 million investment to taxpayers.
Orner said the ed tech committee and technology coach have helped her win over teachers who were skeptical about the role of technology in the classroom.

"If you put the right conditions in place, if you build it in such a way that people have a safe place to take risks and the infrastructure is 100% reliable, I've seen it transform even the most reluctant educator in the classroom and student as well," Orner said.
She said hiring an instructional technology coach was another critical part of the project's success. 

"I was able to defend why we needed to repurpose a teaching position and have an instructional technology coach," she said. "Things don't work unless the instructional people are talking to the hardware folks."

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