The Vail Unified School District is home to the first public high school ever to go 1:1 in the United States. That move in 2005 started a rich tradition of forward thinking technology integration throughout the district. Based 20 miles south of Tucson, Arizona, the district went through an explosive period of growth in the 1990s that saw it’s student body grow from a few hundred to about 12,500.
“That period of explosive growth coincided almost perfectly with the explosive growth of technology in education,” says Matt Federoff, CIO, Vail School District.
As the population continued to climb, the district built more schools that were designed to take advantage of the innovation happening in the realm of ed-tech. While other schools were forced to grapple with outdated infrastructure and rethinking classroom instruction, Vail had the opportunity to build new schools from the ground up uninhibited by some of the infrastructure problems plaguing older facilities. Vail now has 18 schools in total and has been recognized by the Arizona Department of Education as a top performing district.
As a leader in mobile learning, Vail has learned a few things about wireless networks over the years. For one, districts interested in putting tablets or laptops in the classroom may want to rethink a network that makes use of wireless controllers in favor of controller-less, cloud enabled Wi-Fi. According to Federoff, controller-less Wi-Fi is both less expensive and more efficient at managing traffic that doesn’t need to leave the classroom.
With an iPad, the teacher is free to walk
around the room and help students rather than be
tethered to the front of the classroom.
The Vail School District has had wireless in all of its schools since 2001. It started first with consumer level gear like Apple AirPorts and then moved to Cisco wireless controllers. Then in 2010 as Vail was building another new school Federoff realized something.
“I realized that a controller-based architecture where everything was being hauled back to a central place and then distributed out was not going to be sustainable,” he says.
This was especially true in Vail classrooms where teachers and students had access to multiple wireless projection devices. For example, iPads and Apple TV’s. This meant that with a controller-based architecture, traffic wasn’t staying local. Instead, the signal from the iPad would be backhauled to the controller then sent all the way back to the classroom and then to the Apple TV. Federoff decided to go with Aerohive, a controller-less cloud-based solution for the district’s fifth generation of wireless. Now, traffic is switched locally. The signal goes from the iPad to the access point and then right to the Apple TV.
“The whole network doesn’t see it so it doesn’t put a load on the network in that way.The response time is much better and the latency is much better, particularly if you are going to show a video or something with a high frame refresh rate,” Federoff explains.
Vail also had a unique reason for considering controller-less Wi-Fi as its location made it vulnerable to violent summer thunderstorms and schools often experienced equipment failure due to lightning strikes.
“We just sort of assume that’s the cost of doing business,” Federoff says.
The district found the controllers expensive to replace and provisioning a spare through the manufacturer was a difficult and costly proposition. Not to mention, once a controller was lost to lightening, everything was gone. With Vail’s new controller-less solution, if lightning takes out an access point, the school simply puts up another one. Because adding access points is easy, the solution then becomes more scalable.
“In a controller-based architecture, you get licensed for either 12, 25, 50 or 100 stations. If you outgrow it you have to throw away the old controller and install a new one as opposed to simply adding more access points,” Federoff says. “You can ease your way around a building and right size it as you go as opposed to having to preemptively guess how many you need and then having the potential for lost investment.”
Federoff also points out that the changes to e-rate and the emphasis on managed services makes a solution like Aerohive even more attractive to K-12 schools looking for high speed, high quality wireless.
“The fact E-rate rules seem to be almost written for services like Aerohive is not insignificant. It’s noted,” Federoff says.
While you may not live in a climate that forces you to think about weather complications, the issue of latency is something all teachers have to contend with. If there is lag time while a website or video loads it impacts the classroom. Not only is learning interrupted, but more than likely, student attention is long gone.
“Network performance is a classroom management issue,” Federoff says. “Providing a very low latency, very high reliability, very high bandwidth solution and keeping traffic local makes things happen as soon as they should happen. That really has an impact on school culture, on classroom climate and on all of those intangibles.”