Anywhere Wireless Networking on a Tight Budget
- By Dian Schaffhauser
When the fanfare, media coverage, national attention, and funding of a major 1:1 and wireless initiative has ended and a school district is left to pick up the pieces of its technology program single-handedly, what's the result? In the case of North Adams Public Schools, a small district in Northern Berkshire County in Massachusetts, it quickly figures out how to expand wireless access and equipment on its own nickel across all schools, even in a time of much-diminished budgets.
The district, which has 1,695 students, found itself in that position last year when its participation in the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative (BWLI) ended. BWLI was a three-year, widely applauded, multi-million-dollar statewide demonstration project beginning in 2005 across five middle schools in multiple districts, where every student and teacher was provided with a laptop computer. In addition, all classrooms were equipped with wireless Internet networks as well as technical and curricular professional development and support to help teachers integrate the new technology into their curriculum. The $5.3 million program was funded through a combination of district-level school funds, state funds, and local business contributions.
At North Adams' Conte Middle School, Apple and its subcontractors installed an Apple AirPort WiFi network and deployed laptops.
The goal, according to the massive final report released by researchers at Boston College, was to demonstrate the efficacy of a 1:1 program in transforming teaching and learning to enhance student achievement, improve student engagement, improve classroom management, enhance students' capabilities to conduct independent research and collaborate with their peers, and create fundamental changes in teaching strategies and curriculum delivery.
"It's been a great success," according to Matt Mervis, former technology director and now a technology consultant with the district. "There have been four or five key measures we were going after: teachers shifting instructional practices, kids becoming more effective in terms of 21st century research collaboration, problem solving, analysis. We've seen a big reduction in classroom discipline. More kids are focused and engaged. And the biggie--and the reason the state made an investment of several million dollars--we were positive on the high-stakes test, the [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System]. We saw significant increases across all cohort groups in English-language arts."
Expanding 21st Century Learning Across Grades
While the formal program had ended, enthusiasm for continuing and expanding it in the district hadn't. Superintendent James Montepare "saw something powerful with teachers being able to move from room to room and sharing tools and collaborating," recalled Mervis. "He told us, 'I want the instructional impact of this across the whole district.' He wanted us to expand the wireless infrastructure down to the elementary schools."
So in 2007, before the formal end of BLWI, the district ran a request for information that drew three or four responses. "We looked at them on a range of variables: cost, technical solution, the vendor's solution in these types of anywhere-anytime wireless environments," said Mervis. But there was another component to the vendor evaluation as well. "Deploying a network in school for 21st century learning is about both infrastructure and pedagogy. The solution provider needed to contribute to our learning and help us bring our lessons learned back into the broader conversation as well."
Continuing with the Apple track wasn't in the cards owing to its relatively high up-front price tag. "Apple has been a phenomenal partner to us," said Mervis. "We could not have grown and extended the work we've done without them." But, he added, "We had to try to be careful about costs.... As much as I make this sound like peace, love, and happiness, cost was really important for us." That's where lesser known player Meraki was especially strong. The initial $17,000 bid from Meraki covered hardware, hosted services, and labor costs.
Like almost every other district in the country, North Adams faced such a dire financial crisis, earlier this year the city made the decision to close the middle school that had brought the community so much attention. Sixth and seventh graders are to be moved into one of the three elementary schools in the district, and eighth graders will be shifted to the high school. The move was expected to save the district about $520,000 in operational and busing costs, according to news reports.
But before that happened, in August 2007, working with Meraki reseller InfoBridge, a consulting firm in Maine, the district installed a wireless network first in its high school and then put in a "beachhead" at its three K-5 schools. The Drury High effort included deployment of 47 access points (one of which has since been removed) and 200 10-inch Asus netbooks, as well as 70 teacher and staff laptops. A second effort in October 2008 expanded wireless throughout the elementary schools, remote offices, and supplemental facilities.
Equipment List and Layout
According to network administrator Moty Nevo, the elementary schools have 15 to 20 access points in each elementary school. Each AP can cover two to three classes, each of which can have up to 30 computing devices at a time. One-to-one doesn't exist yet. The schools have iBook carts for student use and laptops--Apple, Dell, and HP--for all teachers from grades 5 and up. But shortly, the district hopes to tap into federal stimulus funds to replace those iBooks, which have come to end-of-life, with more netbooks.
The district is using Meraki Indoor 802.11b/g mesh 3-in-1 (gateway/repeater/access point) wireless devices. In addition, it's using several Meraki Outdoor 802.11b/g mesh 3-in-1 devices in areas that require more wireless coverage, such as gymnasiums, cafeterias, and auditoriums.
That initial deployment in the high school ran into problems, Nevo said, involving the bridging between the Meraki network and the district's wired network. "The devices [Meraki] provides are independent, smart devices, and each can act as its own mesh. Everything is done behind the scene with no intervention from us. The problem was that they're so smart and so advanced, we couldn't control certain features to bridge the two networks." Once InfoBridge sorted this out with the internal IT team, the Meraki network worked better, he added. "We were so happy about it, we decided to extend our wireless connectivity using Meraki throughout the elementary schools."
Installation was handled by a crew from InfoBridge led by company founder Shaun Meredith. To get as much coverage out of each access point in the elementary schools as possible, the deployment followed a zigzag pattern, Nevo said. "We were able to put devices diagonally from one classroom to another and provide coverage for one to two classrooms. That helped us keep costs down because we didn't need to buy as many devices to cover the whole building."
That outside help was invaluable, Mervis added. "We have to definitely tip a hat to InfoBridge and Shaun and his team. He brought a lot of value to the table in terms of the back end and where something has to be drilled, but also to what that's going to mean for the kid, teacher and administrator. There's a teaching and learning element grafted on top of the wireless elements to make sure it's the right access at the right throughput with the right functionality where you need it to support a school that is no longer about a teacher standing in front of a chalkboard talking at kids, but kids and teachers together navigating powerful tools and networks."
Wireless Network Management
For managing the wireless network, which actually encompasses two networks--one for school users and the other for guests who happen to be on campus--the district subscribes to the Meraki Enterprise Cloud Controller service. This provides access to monitoring, management, and configuration tools.
"Using online access, we can create new networks (public and private), configure security settings, get visual representation of our wireless network, monitor network traffic, and much more," Nevo said. "You have tools where you can set up alerts, where you can know if one access point is actually offline. If it is, you get an e-mail from Meraki that says, 'Well, you have an access point that is offline and was offline for several hours.' You can check it and make sure it's back online before you get a complaint from the teacher that there's no connectivity. It's a big plus. The freedom of going online and going to a Web page and monitoring and controlling and configuring the network on the fly--this is something that can be very expensive. Meraki provides it at no cost. That was really appealing for us."
Now, while the wired network is used to provide directory services, authentication, security, file sharing, and printing, the transition between wired and wireless is transparent to users. "If you're on wireless, you can get the same services that you get on wired," Nevo said.
But that doesn't yet translate to single sign-on authentication, termed by Mervis as "the holy grail." Once a user logs on, he or she has access to the resources allotted to that role. "They don't need an additional log-on to get onto the Internet," explained Nevo. But other services do require a separate sign-on. So it's almost single sign-on."
Mervis and Nevo both have advice for other district technology leaders facing one-to-one initiatives and expansion of networking capabilities. Advised Mervis, address the same questions posed by any new tech initiative in a district: "What are you trying to get done? What's your goal, your outcome?" As he explained, "We were pretty clear about what the use case would look like. It was important to have some real specificity about where, when, how many kids, and what they would be doing--and then build a network and a wireless infrastructure that's really matched to that need."
Added Nevo, "You have to ask, how many people do you need to sustain the infrastructure? How compatible is the wired infrastructure to the wireless?"
As Mervis concluded, "The Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative was the ignition for us. But Meraki was the solution for us to expand our footprint."