Learning how to make the best of comms technology
The UK government hopes a wider use of technology in education can reduce teacher workloads, increase efficiency, and improve accessibility, inclusion and student outcomes. James Atkinson takes a look at how technology is being used in the sector.
It is difficult to get a clear idea of the installed base of voice communications technology in the education sector. Some may just rely on personal mobile phones, but Andrew Wilson, managing director at Hytera distributor Syndico, says: “There is significant use of business-level PMR 446 (unlicensed) two-way radio at school level and a significant DMR use at college/ university level.
“Lots of the solutions our customers put into schools are simplistic, often PMR446 radios such as the Hytera PD365, which is a cost-effective product, but with all the traditional benefits of PMR in that they are durable and simple to use. Most of the marketing we support dealers with is around this type of radio solution.”
PMR446 solutions will suit single-site primary schools, but larger secondary schools, colleges and universities with dispersed footprints will require a licence from Ofcom for a two-way radio wide-area solution. Radios allow instant communications between individuals or particular talk groups, be they teachers, admin, maintenance, welfare, cleaning, catering or caretaker/ security staff.
PTT group communications can save time, increase efficiency and boost productivity and team working. More sophisticated radios can support safety features such as man-down and lone-worker alarms and GPS location services. They are particularly useful for co-ordinating emergency evacuations or lockdown procedures if the school is under threat, where instant, group communications are vital.
Radios can be linked to indoor location systems and connected to other equipment such as fire alarms, CCTV, workflow and task management solutions and body-worn cameras. Female students on campus can connect small personal safety alarms that will send an alert to control centres and to security guard radios if they are in danger.
Another option is Push-to-talk over Cellular (PoC). Wilson says: “I believe that PoC is simply the best solution for the end-user requirements within schools and colleges. Most of the time, the radios are there for convenience to pass messages rather than for anything particularly mission-critical – the attraction of having robust products with a low maintenance requirement that are free to air after purchase seems to be very attractive for cash-strapped schools.”
He also thinks PoC is suitable for university campuses, which are often spread over multiple sites, sometimes several miles apart. “This leads to some interesting coverage challenges, particularly with security teams who often cover multiple sites on campus. The wide-area nature of these end-user requirements has led to many requests for PoC enquiries from reseller partners, as they can offer a more ‘out of the box’ solution than installing lots of repeaters and complex antenna solutions to get the uninterrupted coverage such users require.”
On the data side, Wi-Fi is certainly the key technology in education. “Devices used for learning have steadily migrated from fixed computers to mobile laptops and tablets, with the latter depending entirely upon a Wi-Fi connection. Consequently, we have seen widespread uptake of Wi-Fi across UK educational facilities,” says Lewis White, UK enterprise lead at CommScope, which acquired leading Wi-Fi vendor Ruckus last year.
“However, the extent to which it is deployed varies massively,” he continues. “This is in part due to budgets (or perception of cost) and in part due to the physical nature of older buildings and distributed campus locations.”
Simon Wilson, CTO EMEA at HPE Aruba, agrees. “We have seen a significant increase in schools rolling out high-density Wi-Fi networks. Take Stanley Park High School in Sutton, south London. It realised that a good-quality Wi-Fi implementation takes IT out of the IT suite, and the whole school becomes the IT suite. It allows children to study anywhere across the estate. All you need is a laptop.”
White says the main use of Wi-Fi in schools began with basic teaching aids, moving to interactive learning and teaching using connected smartboards. “In the school environment, connectivity remains principally a connection to facilitate delivery of learning. When we move to further and higher education, the nature of the typical facility changes, as does the role of the user.”
College and university student expectations are much higher these days and they want far more in terms of connectivity, so Wi-Fi needs to be pervasive, with no black spots, and with more capacity to cope with all the data demands, according to Wilson.
“The ability to connect with family and friends, and access online help with their courses, is important. Students often have to submit and get work checked electronically, so teaching staff can more easily check for plagiarism. Wi-Fi is a major part of a student’s everyday life in halls of residence where they are connecting smartphones, laptops, tablets, gaming devices and other kit,” he says.
White makes the point that modern university buildings and campuses are also more than just learning spaces. “They generate revenue through multiple channels – increasingly through hosting conferences and events. Attendees expect to have free access to Wi-Fi, and the network has to accommodate sudden increases in user density and demand.”
The education sector adopts a mix of network infrastructure and management solutions. “The type of network that supports the wireless infrastructure does vary,” says Wilson. “Big universities like Cambridge, Oxford or Manchester have fairly complicated networks to support a wide variety of applications and they have centralised IT functions with their own in-house IT people. It is therefore more like a large enterprise network that is deployed.
“Schools obviously implement much smaller, less complex infrastructure and they may be supported centrally by a local authority or multi-academy trust, although the schools are not necessarily connected together. We are having some success here with a major focus around delivering zero-touch provisioning and simplified management processes.”
White says the overwhelming trend for larger schools and universities is towards the use of some form of third-party managed service. “Distributed buildings provide challenges. Luckily facilities today are not entirely dependent upon a central network backbone to connect every device. Distributed sites and their access points can be managed remotely, within the cloud, and a new generation of managed service providers have emerged to take on the task of managing campus-wide Wi-Fi service on behalf of the facility and its operator.”
Wi-Fi vendors have put a lot of effort into streamlining the onboarding and authentication process, so it is now a much slicker experience than it once was. But controlling what devices come onto the network and what the children can access is a major concern for schools. “There is quite a wide acceptance across schools now about the use of personal devices in schools,” says Wilson.
“Some schools welcome this and if they have appropriate onboarding and authentication procedures, the kids connect through the network and the necessary filters can be applied to their BYO device. The teachers can then see what they are accessing and filter content appropriately. Other schools will still only let children use proscribed devices, but at Aruba we think it is a missed opportunity to enhance digital learning and experience.”
But with more bandwidth-hungry devices being deployed, it is important schools and universities are ready to deal with potential capacity issues. The latest Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) standard is designed to allow facilities to connect more devices simultaneously and provide a path to 10Gb speeds. “With Wi-Fi 6, capacity increases four-fold. This means that the managed services providers will be able to commit and deliver on tighter SLAs, even in increasingly dense user environments,” asserts White.
But he cautions: “It’s important to remember that Wi-Fi is only one aspect of the overall network. The facility that has a well-designed and specified infrastructure that includes appropriate physical copper and fibre connectivity, and ethernet switching, will gain the most benefit from provision of high-quality wireless access to that network, and be well positioned to support future demands.”
Wi-Fi also adds value by supporting applications such as asset tagging and location services. “You can count people into and out of buildings,” says Wilson, “and see if there is a free seat in the library. Location services are very useful for the estates team as they can see the utilisation of facilities.”
White says that the campus environment is often distributed in nature, and with a greater number of students comes a greater focus upon the security and monitoring of facilities and students alike. “Well-provisioned Wi-Fi enables IP camera surveillance in those areas that cannot be serviced by a wired connection and brings a new dimension to the options for deployment of security tech.”
There is a lot of interest in the newbuild student accommodation sector to install Wi-Fi for applications such as door-locking systems using your phone, according to Wilson. “If you can operate that kind of service over the Wi-Fi then you do not need to install a separate parallel network. Student accommodation can work like a hotel. You use your phone to unlock the door and you don’t have to worry about keys or door cards.”
“Schools and universities can also make use of analytical data collected by the Wi-Fi for sustainability projects,” adds Wilson. “How many people are there; where are they; when do they go there; how long do they stay there? You anonymise the data, but it enables the facility to see what buildings are occupied, in what densities and when. There is untapped data that can be harnessed to extract value to make things more efficient, more productive and safer.”
The other big activity in Wi-Fi is the Internet of Things. “There is a much wider variety of ‘things’ wanting to connect, and they do not all have the same level of security built in,” says Wilson. “The network must therefore identify it, create a profile for it, recognise what it does and then recognise if it is behaving abnormally.”
There is clearly plenty of scope for communications technology in the education sector. Wi-Fi looks sure to stay, although it is possible that larger facilities like major universities might one day look at private 5G networks, especially if thousands of IoT devices need reliable connectivity and management. On the voice side, two-way radio is certainly more effective than consumer mobile phones, but PoC may well make inroads here, so long as cellular coverage is adequate.