School network topologies

Establishing School Networks

Instead of supplying each school with its own direct Internet access service, some countries have found it more beneficial to create school intranets that connect educational institutions to an academic network. Such school networks allow educational institutions to be linked within a country or region, providing a way for the schools to exchange educational materials. The networks also improve administrative processes among schools within a single jurisdiction or school district and allow better access to education ministries.

A school network can reduce Internet access charges by keeping academic traffic local rather than having it routed overseas. Network links can be extended to overseas networks or NRENs. Given the limited bandwidth of dial-up access, a school network often is a better option for a single school, which otherwise might have to secure several different connections in order to provide connectivity to multiple classrooms. Broadband is a better solution for supporting multiple access points over a single connection. It can reduce costs, since multiple dial-up telephone lines are no longer needed.

A school network also provides connectivity and access to high-quality, centralized and localized digital content for both teachers and students. Plus, the network generally provides access to educational applications, content filtering, anti-virus, centrally hosted secure email, and online security services.

The advantages of connecting through a central school network are:

  • Speed – Once the schools are connected, the school network will provide a rapid method for sharing and transferring files. Without a network, files are often shared by copying them to memory sticks (which have a cost) and manually transferring information, which is time-consuming and restricts sharing of information across the school and eventually several schools nationally.
  • Cost - The network versions of most software programmes are available at considerable savings when compared to buying individually licensed copies. In addition to providing monetary savings, sharing a programme on a network allows for easier upgrading of the programme. The changes have to be done only once, on the file server, instead of on all the individual workstations.
  • Centralized Software Management - One of the greatest benefits of installing a network at a school is the fact that all of the software can be loaded on one computer (the file server) and shared.
  • Resource Sharing - Sharing resources is another area in which a network exceeds stand-alone computers. Through networking, the costs of peripheral equipment (printers, modems, scanners) will be reduced, since they can be shared across the network.
  • Flexible Access - School networks allow students and teachers to access their files from computers throughout the school, and eventually, throughout the region or country.

Other Solutions

In addition to school networks, there are other scenarios to bring connectivity to schools:

• Purchasing a direct Internet connection from a commercial Internet Service Provider;

• Establishing a direct connection via a National Research and Education Network (NREN) or Regional Research and Education Network (RREN);

• Getting a mix of connections provided by telecommunications operators, commercial Internet service providers and NRENs;

• Establishing connections through government-owned fibre backbone networks; or

• Getting connected via a regional or metropolitan-area network. 105

NRENs consist of human networks and their accompanying organizational structures, as well as the supporting infrastructures. NRENs can connect universities and research centres directly, apart from the commercial Internet, providing uncongested, high-speed advanced communications capabilities.

NRENs are increasingly viewed as the vital and core component of modern teaching, research and learning. About 100 countries around the world have adopted NRENs as the centrepieces of their information and communication technology (ICT) plans for tertiary education. Potential users include educational institutions, hospitals and other health-related facilities, government agencies and ministries, libraries, research institutions, museums, science and technology institutions, as well as offices involved in culture, tourism and agriculture. In short, any institution a “community of interest” can use NRENs. For example, the Academic and Research Network of Slovenia ( ARNES) connects universities, institutes, research laboratories, museums, schools, databases and digital libraries in the country. The network links more than 1,000 Slovenian organizations, making the ARNES services available to nearly 200,000 people. 106

In the Republic of Ireland and in England, network connectivity for schools is provided by telecommunications operators, but schools also receive a connection to the NREN and therefore benefit from the services that the NREN offers.

In the U.S. state of North Carolina, charter schools are now receiving high-speed connectivity and services on the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN). Access for charter schools is part of the North Carolina School Connectivity Initiative (SCI), begun in May 2009, for all 115 K-12 public school districts in North Carolina to be connected to NCREN. North Carolina charter schools are eligible to be connected to NCREN either through a complete turnkey connection or by opting to be responsible for part of the connection arrangements themselves. Each charter school connected to NCREN receives the same quality broadband connection, equipment, and support as the school districts that already are connected. 107

In England, 10 regional bodies (regional broadband consortia) were created to procure connectivity on an “aggregated” basis for all the schools in their region. By procuring on a bulk basis, the consortia are able to negotiate significant discounts on the price that individual schools are not able to obtain. Each consortium is free to obtain connectivity from any telecommunications operator, and it is encouraged to find the best value for its member schools.108

In Djibouti, the Connect to Learn project uses cloud-based technology to connect schools. The project was launched in 2012 by Ericsson, in collaboration with Djibouti Telecom, the Ministry of Telecommunication and the Ministry of Education. The project so far has connected five schools, allowing some 1,300 students and teachers to have access to laptops, projectors, broadband connectivity and online educational resources. Connect to Learn is a collaborative effort between Ericsson, the Earth Institute at Columbia University (in the United States) and Millennium Promise. It is based on the use of connectivity to implement low-cost and user-friendly ICTs for schools through mobile broadband and cloud computing. The project is designed to give students and teachers access to information and educational resources, as well as the ability to connect their schools with others around the world, enabling collaborative learning, cross-cultural understanding and global awareness.109

In Ireland, telecommunications operators had to bid for contracts to provide connectivity for schools. Six providers won contracts, with the condition that they support free mobile learning services. Learning devices are no longer restricted to the classroom -- many students, of all ages, own or have access to cell phones, iPods, tablets, or other handheld devices. School administrators are quickly realizing that students can use those devices to access school websites, classroom assignments, and other educational resources from both school and home.110

A 2011 Economist Report indicates that there are already 84 million Internet-enabled mobile devices in Africa. A predicted 69 per cent of mobile devices in Africa will have Internet capability by 2014. 111 Similarly, 2012 ITU data shows that the number of mobile phones worldwide approached 6 billion at the end of 2011. 112

For every individual who goes online from a computer, two more do so from a mobile device. Even where schools and computers are scarce, people still have mobile phones. Growth in mobile services has been driven by developing countries, which accounted for more than 80 per cent of the 660 million new mobile-cellular subscriptions added in 2011. Africa alone will account for some 735 million mobile subscriptions by late 2012. This means that a majority of Africans have individual access to an interactive ICT -- for the first time in history.

This is also the case in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2011, for example, 142 million mobile subscriptions were added in India, twice as many as in the whole of Africa, and more than in the Arab States, CIS and Europe together. By the end of 2011, there were 105 countries with more mobile subscriptions than inhabitants, including African countries such as Botswana, Gabon, Namibia, Seychelles and South Africa. Countries where mobile service penetration increased the most in 2011 included Brazil, Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, Lao P.D.R. and Mali. In 2011, 144 million mobile broadband subscriptions were added in the so-called BRICS nations (Brazil, the Russian Federation, India, China and South Africa), accounting for 45 per cent of the world’s total new subscriptions in 2011.113

Although there is often resistance to the use of mobile phones in classrooms, there are also multiple examples of how mobile technologies have contributed to school connectivity. Given the tremendous expansion of mobile broadband and the increased availability of smartphones around the world, the use of such technology for school connectivity must be addressed.

In France, schools are connected via a regional network that, in turn, is connected to the NREN. In most regions, the regional school administration organizes school connectivity, with traffic from the schools network then being injected into the NREN backbone at the regional level. Countries deploying national backbone networks should also plan for backhaul to allow for school connectivity. This can be done at no or low cost, including the use of wireless backhaul.

The network topology within schools also needs to be established. Apart from the connection to the Internet, there are other networking aspects to consider -- particularly, how the Internet access will be distributed within a school. This generally depends on computer allocation strategies (see Figure below). One approach is to establish computer labs, reducing the need for multiple in-school connections. In other countries, computers are distributed more widely within classrooms, or teachers use their own computers to present online content. In the latter case, a school-wide Local Area Network (LAN) may be necessary, which could increase costs and support requirements.

Figure 3-5: School Network Topologies

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