High school builds wi-fi network for 3200 students

Rangitoto College in Auckland will welcome student devices into the school from next year

A secondary school with a student population larger than some New Zealand towns, intends to allow its 3200 students free access to the internet from next year.

Rangitoto College on Auckland’s North Shore has developed a wi-fi network that will cover 134 classrooms situated on the school’s 31 hectares. Associate principal Don Hastie says there are 130 access points and each one can support up to 90 devices.

The wi-fi network is part of an investment of more than $1.5 million in upgrading the school’s IT systems. Of that about $1 million was spent on recabling as part of the Ministry of Education’s School Network Upgrade Project.

The school hired an IT manager Wayne Everett in late 2009 to lead a team of three responsible for ICT in the school. Everett employed consultant TorqueIP to advise on conducting an RFP process to implement a wireless solution, in which 20 vendors responded. They created a shortlist of two companies and Aruba won the contract.

“We wanted a scalable solution, one that would allows us coverage and also a solution that would provide us with throughput,” Everett says.

The school has also installed Layer 3 Allied Telesis switches, with a Switchblade X908 core switch at the heart of its network. Everett estimates that currently there is 140 gigabytes of data (that is both up and down) through the network a day, and data volumes will increase rapidly when students bring their own devices to school next year.

Rangitoto College is connected to the one gigabit fibre optic North Shore Education Access Loop (NEAL) that was built by Vector and partly funded by the Labour government’s Broadband Challenge initiative. The school’s ISP is Maxnet, partly chosen because it houses the datacentre of its learning management system supplier Dataview.

Hastie says next year every classroom will have wireless connectivity, eight hard-wired access points and up to 10 power points so students can recharge their device batteries, along with mounted projection system capable of displaying an image without having to darken the room.

Parents have been sent a booklet that explains the school’s IT upgrade and which invites students to bring their digital devices to school in 2012. Hastie describes the document as the school’s digital strategy and it sets out the expectations for students, staff and the community.

Hastie says they will welcome devices such as PCs, tablets and netbooks, but cellphones – including smartphones – will remain a banned item for students.

“They are a distraction on a number of accounts and so we have a ‘no cellphone’ rule, the reason being we find students talk to each other more when they don’t have a phone,” Hastie says. “We’re going to have to revisit that, but at the moment what we’re talking about are more personal computing devices.”

The type of device is not being mandated, as Hastie says this will depend on the student’s needs (for example a design student may require a more sophisticated device than a netbook) and the parents ability to afford the device. But the school is talking with third-party vendors and intends to create an arrangement with a local supplier whom will be able to advise Rangitoto College parents on the most suitable device for their child.

Is Hastie worried about the digital divide between rich and poor? “That is always a concern, although we have always found that those with devices are often prepared to share.

Hastie says at the beginning devices will be optional and where the use of technology is a course requirement, the school will provide the necessary equipment. Though, he points out that the divide between work done at school and at home is blurred. He also expects the use of laptops and tablets in class will be student-led, so that teachers will take their cue from the class as to how they can be incorporated into the lessons.

The students won’t have access to the school’s internal VPN, just to the internet. They will be able to log into RangiNet (the school’s learning management system) and any website that hasn’t been blocked by the school’s filtering system.

Hastie describes the filtering policy as “liberal”. Students will have access to YouTube and Facebook, but not to BitTorrent sites, as the school is mindful of the new Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act. Although Hastie says that preventing copyright infringement, much like cyberbullying, is as much about educating students on what is acceptable and legal behaviour.

Derek Wenmoth, a director of eLearning for CORE Education, says Rangitoto College is at the vanguard of public schools implementing infrastructure, along with policies, that enable students to have seamless use of ICT in their everyday school environment. He says only about five percent of schools in the country – he cites Point England in East Tamaki and Orewa College north of Auckland as two other schools — are embracing the idea of a seamless technology environment.

“I think there is a very good case for creating a learning continuity where ICT is just one of those things that you are naturally working with, in order to achieve what you’re doing as a learner, rather than having scheduled IT classes, ,” he says.

Meanwhile, with Everett on board full-time Rangitoto College has chosen for the time being to keep its own IT infrastructure on premise. It is running 15 virtualised Windows 2008 R2 servers on a Fujitsu blade centre and it has a Netapp disk storage system that provides 7.5 Terabytes of storage. Data is backed up using a disk to disk to tape system with a 16 Terabyte storage capacity.

However Hastie isn’t ruling out a move to outsourcing in the future. “We don’t see it as cost efficient at the moment to be going to the cloud, but we are setting up systems that would allow us to move there.”

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