by Bill Evans
Primary and secondary education (K-12) has unique needs when it comes to network infrastructure and the use of technology. Although the form may be similar to that of businesses, the function is different. The needs can be broken down into two categories—product needs and usage needs. In this article, I'll give you an overview of the IT needs specific to education. In future articles, I'll address specific tactics for meeting those needs.
K-12 users (which include administrators, teachers, and students) are becoming more and more dependent on the computers they use each day. The close integration between teaching and the use of technology, as well as the increased move toward the use of core applications over a Web-based platform, have prompted this. What does this mean? It means that administrators cannot perform their critical daily functions without the use of a computer. Also, a teacher cannot use many of the tools at his/her disposal without a computer. Additionally, students require the same level of access to computers for project completion. Some K-12 school districts are even beginning to plan online curriculums (i.e., distance learning) to prepare students for college level education that will use such a format. So, as in the corporate arena, computers have become a need; more so than just a want as in past years.
Sometimes, students can't complete all of their computer-related work in school, and the specialized applications they need are not available at home. Because of this, we need remote access (for both high-speed and dial-up users) for both students and teachers. We accomplish this using VPN, Citrix, Terminal Servers, and other remote access technologies. To be able to support 24/7 access requires the right infrastructure and support behind it.
K-12 users have varied abilities when it comes to using technology. The kind of training that is available to corporate users is typically not available to K-12 users. Therefore, reliability is key to using technology successfully "across-the-board." In most cases, it's necessary to adopt a technology on a large scale (building, department, grade) for there to be success with its use in education. If the technology is not reliable (i.e., functions the same way each time it's used) most likely K-12 users will abandon it.
Just as a company's IT needs grow by doing business, a school district's IT needs grow over time. Because education, specifically K-12, is still in the process of fully adopting the use of technology, its needs are increasing. Bandwidth and storage are two important areas. Educational tools are growing the need for audio and video technology. Also, many educational tools are Web-based.
Using technology that will scale to the needs of education is also a key factor. One example of this lies in the fact that someschool districts use a model that allows a kindergarten student to keep his work (documents, presentations, research, media files, e-mail) throughout his entire school career. Since this is a new initiative, the storage requirements will not be fully quantified until twelve years after the initiative begins. For example, in one model school district the data storage and backup needs increased 800percent in less than five years.
So when it comes to planning for current and future data storage, it's important that you not depend on a single file server. You should use products that can scale to more than double their current capacity over the next 5+ years. Multiple file servers will provide scalability and a level of redundancy. Considering a migration path to a NAS or SAN solution would be ideal.
K-12 computer networks have an increased need for redundancy. This redundancy is needed in both infrastructure (routers, switches, data links) and in data management (storage, archive, backup). The increased need for redundancy in infrastructure stems from the fact that availability and reliability requirements are on the rise. Information management, especially document storage, in paper form has always been a critical requirement in K-12 educational environments. Now that much of this data is in electronic format, it's critical that it be accessible in any event.
School districts are public institutions, and as such they must be capable of providing information requested of them. This includes financial information, student records, and e-mail records. This information must be stored for an indefinite period. A traditional single tape backup system won't work in this environment. And, where tape is used, you must implement significant tape rotations. Additionally, off-site backup may be necessary. It's ideal to upgrade/replace the current backup system and then reuse the older system for off-site (in one of the more secluded buildings/schools) backups.
Just as in other areas of business, if a product is not functional (improves how someone works or teaches) then it's not useful. Typically, a K-12 user doesn't need any more than is required to complete the task or assignment. Software applications or hardware components that provide unnecessary features cause unneeded complications and training issues.
As mentioned earlier, K-12 users are often not as capable using technology as are corporate or government users, so the technology needs to be easy to use. The user environment that's available to the teacher or student must be customized to their specific needs. The fewer unneeded features available, the easier the system will be to use.
Consistency is also a factor. What one teacher sees, another teacher must see, and what one student sees another student must see. Keeping the user environment consistent will ease the use of technology, especially for those users in kindergarten and first grade.
Security is a topic that must be considered anywhere that technology is used, whether it's in the home, in business or in education. The two most important areas of information security in K-12 are accounting software packages and student management information systems. It's important to keep administrative and instructional information separate. And just as user awareness of security practices is imperative in other industries, it's just as important in education. It may be even more difficult to ensure, however, given the ages of the users.
There are two areas of monitoring that are relevant in K-12 education. The first is user monitoring. This includes Web-site activity tracking as well as user storage tracking. Determining what sites users attempt to access is important information and it may also be necessary to scan user home directories for improper file storage. Another area of monitoring is proactive and reactive network monitoring. K-12 network infrastructures are becoming larger and more complex, so the need to monitor them is more significant than ever. Whether using a commercial, open source, or home-grown product, monitoring the network activity is an important step to keeping pace with technology growth in education.
The forces that drive education IT (K-12 and other) are different than those that drive the corporate world. Both build information systems and network infrastructures using similar equipment to meet very different needs.