Facilitating the Use of Technology in the Classroom
When integrating technology into their educational programs to become 21st century committed, schools are confronted with technical components which are indispensable. Internet availability is perhaps the most relevant one.
Internet has come to be to education somehow as water is to life. It’s impressive the number of calls and complaints from teachers, administrators and students when the Internet service is down or slow. Surely, numerous IT colleagues have perceived similarly experience. I occasionally think that the measure of our success is considered to depend on the performance of the Internet connection.
When the Internet Connection is fast, everyone is happy. Nonetheless to accomplish that, there are many technical factors involved that probably only a few people know. The purpose of this article is to explain those factors in an easy understandable way.
One of the most mistaken concepts is that bandwidth is equal to Internet speed. When the connection is slow the solution that pops up right away is to add more bandwidth; and that’s not necessarily the solution for most cases.
Why? The reason is that Bandwidth refers to how much data can be sent through a network connection in a fixed amount of time; while speed is the time taken to reach the data from source to destination. Bandwidth is a “fixed setting” while network speed can vary. Network speed rests on many elements, like the protocol use to send or receive data, servers proficiency, network concurrence, destination accesses reliability, performance, speed and capacity, ISP international network connections and capability among numerous others.
A better way to understand this is to think of bandwidth as a highway with cars travelling on it. The highway is the network connection and the cars are the data. The speed could be represented in many ways, but for this example let’s see it as how good the highway is built. The wider the highway, the more cars can travel on it at one time. Therefore, more cars can get to their destinations faster; however, if there are many gaps or bumps in the road it doesn’t matter how clear it is, everyone will be delayed.
Since the Internet Access is so significant in schools, technology team members must guarantee that in their side everything is flawlessly configured and optimize to avoid the “gaps” and “bumps” in the “road”. They must never rely just on the Internet Service Provider to accomplish that.
In the first part of these post series I mentioned the importance of quantifying in advance the number of users and devices that are expected to be connected to the school’s network. It is also extremely important to determine what type of applications will be used and web sites accessed by teachers and students. The importance of doing this relates to the importance of assigning the required resources, hiring the right amount of bandwidth and to making the necessary firewall and web-filtering configurations to accomplish the task.
For example, it is not the same a school that is going to center most of its program making video conferences compared to one that will use mostly regular, not too demanding, web sites and applications.
I know that having this in place before hand is difficult. Nevertheless, having at least a reliable orientation can facilitate selecting the accurate bandwidth and mounting the proper firewall and web filter configurations.
The following are some recommendations to enhance the quality of the Internet Connection:
1. Check that you’re receiving what you’re paying for: Your ISP must provide tools to check the connection status and quantity of bandwidth use and received. There are other free tools that can help in these monitoring endeavors. One of them is: http://speedtest.net.
2. DNS (Domain Name System): Every time a Web site address is typed into a browser, that address needs to be translated into the actual IP address for the computer hosting that site. That function is similar to the one we do when calling a cell phone contact. Even when selecting a contact’s name the phone dials a number.
The job of the DNS server is to take the text address typed in, look it up against a database of IP addresses, and then return the correct address to your browser so that the site can be accessed. If DNS servers get overloaded or experience other technical problems, they may take a long time to respond to lookup requests or they may not respond at all. Some ISP’s are better than others when it comes to maintaining their DNS servers. Sometimes, when the Internet connection seems to be down, it may be fine, and simply appear to be down for the reason that your ISP's DNS isn't working properly. If this scenario sounds familiar, you can use other DNS servers. For example, you can make use of OpenDns.com or Google public DNS.
3. Separate networks: I mentioned the importance of configuring Vlan’s in the first part of these series. It’s crucial to separate in virtual networks the different groups of users in the school. This will provide a superior performance, more flexibility and improved controls and monitoring. Some of the most common groups of users in schools are: teachers, staff, administrators, students, guests, technology. It is also recommended that each of these groups handle a maximum of 254 simultaneously users.
4. Firewall: As network traffic passes through the firewall, the firewall decides which traffic to forward and which traffic not to forward, based on defined rules. The most common features of firewalls are: block incoming and outgoing network traffic based on ports, protocols, source or destinations, block network traffic based on content, permit internal connections, report network traffic. I always recommend closing all ports in the firewall, except for 80, 443 and 53 (these ports allow Web Access). However, this will depend on the specific needs of each school. An advantageous practice though is to block port 25 (SMTP) that is the standard protocol for e-mail transmission; especially for student computers or network. Many viruses use port 25 to send massive traffic of SPAM emails that will affect the connection performance and cause troubles with the ISP or place your IP addresses in black lists.
5. Web Filters: They are not the definite solution for Internet Safety; nevertheless, they are extremely useful to avoid unwanted traffic. They are incredibly useful to control inappropriate use of the network and bandwidth, and to prevent access to differing types of web sites, and especially to make it stricter for invective students.
In schools it’s essential to implement a configuration open enough so that it won’t interfere with teacher projects in the classroom and closed enough to swerve most of the users away from restricted and malicious sites.
There are many Web Filters in the market; some of them are by software, others by appliances. In general, Web filters are installed as part of a proxy server and firewall. For schools, some recommended ones are the following: OpenDns, Untangle, Microsoft TMG2010, McAfee Smart Filter, Zscaler, and Fortigate.
6. Have good antivirus and antispyware tools.
7. Always keep the school computers up-to-date. Some schools don’t have control on what is installed in student computers, if that’s the case, the acceptable use policy should specify that the IT team will have the authority to check any student’s laptop/tablet and also specify as a rule or policy that every student laptop/tablet must have an updated antivirus and antispyware installed.
I hope this helps understand some basic terms and concepts that somehow are just kept to technical staff. The reality is that everyone involved in making decisions in schools should have an idea on these models and what is needed to structure a strong and reliable IT platform that promotes and supports 21st century education.
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