A few years ago, the Westfield, NJ school district realized it was in need of a major infrastructure overhaul. Education was going digital, but in Westfield wireless wasn’t available in many classrooms, the network ran slower than the connection in most houses and mobile device use wasn’t supported.
“Infrastructure in general is never an exciting topic because nobody ever really sees infrastructure and it costs a lot of money,” says Brain Auker, chief technology officer for Westfield Public schools. “Everyone wants to see more computers in the classroom and students sitting there with devices, however you need the infrastructure to support all of those devices.”
The district hoped to go BYOD in the future, but knew that would be impossible without significant upgrades. So IT staff and administrators sat down to map out a three-year technology plan that included expanding wireless coverage, increasing network speed and eventually implementing mobile devices.
The first step was to expand wireless coverage throughout the district. Wireless access points were added in each school, allowing for connection within the classrooms.
“The main goal today in education is to make technology as accessible as possible as soon as possible. It’s not supposed to be a treat anymore. It’s a tool now,” says Auker.
Previously, wireless was only available in areas like the library or the cafeteria where large groups of students would gather. Although teachers in Westfield have district-issued laptops, many of them were never able to use the devices during school hours. At the start of this school year, Westfield technicians were suddenly inundated with requests to add devices to the school’s network because teachers were finally able to use the laptops the way they wanted to.
The district also increased its network speed, which had been running on a 10-megabit connection. “Most people today have a 20 or 50 megabit connection in their houses and we were trying to run an entire district off of 10,” says Auker.
Westfield originally increased its network speed by factor of ten, but is now in the process of laying down its own fiber to increase to a 1-gigabit connection between schools.
Because the district invested in improving its technology infrastructure, Westfield was also able to implement a Cisco IP phone system, eliminating the high cost for traditional phone lines.
“We could not realize the savings of an IP phone system until we increased the network backbone with faster links between the schools and improved equipment in our wiring closets and things like that,” says Auker.
The district was also able to roll out iPad carts at every school and two carts of Ultrabooks at the high school. Most importantly, with the increased wireless coverage, students can now use these devices in the classroom. These upgrades will also allow the school to introduce more mobile devices in the future.
“One of the things we wanted to plan for was the concept of ‘bring your own device.’ Many of our students have the technology at home and they keep requesting to bring it in and certainly we’d like to accommodate them, but we just couldn’t do it,” says Auker.
The high school, alone, has about 1,800 students. If each student was allowed to bring a device from home in addition to a smartphone, the number of devices on the old network would have easily become unmanageable.
Westfield is currently in the break-in period for it’s new technology. The district has no plans to rush into BYOD and is still looking to tweak wireless access points and come up with new ways of maximizing on equipment. Teachers have been invited to bring devices from home as a kind of test run.
The district is also drafting a mobile device use policy. “We can’t just turn around and say we have an open network so anyone can bring in any device you want and have fun. We need to have guidelines in place,” says Auker.
Westfield has both a technology subcommittee and a policy subcommittee that are working together to create a policy. The district is also seeking the advice of other schools.
“We’re trying to develop our own hybrid of what will work best here in our district,” says Auker. “Not every school district is exactly the same, but they’re similar.”
The district realizes that once it does implement BYOD, there will likely be an increase in the need for tech support. Westfield is considering setting up a Genius bar similar to the one at the Apple store. This would be located at the middle school and high school. Students will staff the genius bar and assist their peers with things like getting on the network and accessing school content.
“We already know they have the technical skills, so it gives them [students] the ability to harness those skills in a positive light,” says Auker. “We don’t need to hire more staff. It’s a win-win for the district.”