Sunday, 17 June 2012

'iPad Journey' Will your Wireless System Cope?

Since I started blogging about iPads in Education I've been getting carried away with the positives that this handheld technology can bring to the classroom, but there's been one major area of concern that I'm encountering if the schools 'iPad Journey' is going to hit the ground running  - it's the schools wireless network!

As ICT coordinator one of my biggest headaches over the last year has been our wireless networking. The downsides are the notoriously unpredictable wireless technology and its performance, which can lead to high levels of frustration for both teachers and pupils. The wireless is going to be a central especially when there could be any thing up to 30+ iPads and or iPods that all need wireless access at the same time and all expecting a fast connection to the internet. A powerful wireless network is therefore essential to a successful implementation of handheld devices in the classroom.

A bit of background ...

Over a year ago, the school invested in a class set of laptops - Fizzbooks, (the iPad 2 hadn't been released yet!) with a charging trolley. Before the Fizzbooks were released to staff we needed a wireless network to support these devices around the school. The wireless system which was installed just didn't work! I'd be the first to admit that I had no idea or the experience on what was required to get 30 laptops onto the wireless network all the same time. I relied on advice on what to buy, bought it and the routers were installed. The consumer level routers that were installed couldn't cope - we were lucky to get a third of the laptops connected to the internet. It was a disappointing start. Needless to say the initial hype of the laptops soon diminished, children and teachers were left frustrated and so was I. This was a costly error in both time and money, and we had to learn a lesson from this mistake.

Therefore, needing to get a class set of laptops working wirelessly, we needed some expert advice, so we contacted a company who advised installing a whole-site wireless network. 14 wireless access points across the school site were installed. The wireless local area network (WLAN) was supporting 802.11g. This system has been adequate, although by no means perfect, in terms of getting 30 Fizzbooks connected wirelessly to the internet for simple web browsing.

802.11g Wireless System
Whilst this wireless system has done a resonable job keeping up to 30 Fizzbooks connected to the internet, how will it cope with a flood of iPads and iPods all needing wireless access at the same time? The simple answer is, it won't! I want children using iPods or iPads to blog using Wordpress or Posterous apps, using google Docs for Education, simply web browsing, uploading iMovies to Vimeo, using Dropbox to access documents, etc etc. All of this will require a robust wireless system otherwise it just won't work and teachers and pupils will once again be left frustrated and return to the static ICT suite in their droves.

A Managed Wireless System?

Meraki Managed Wireless System

Again we needed some expert advice. I contacted an Apple reseller who suggested a Meraki managed wireless system would be the way forward. The Meraki system 'provides a solution to the burden that handheld technology can have on a wireless system and uses the newest standard in wireless technology - 802.11n. This system was design to improve on the 802.11g in the amount of bandwidth supported by utilising multiple wireless signals instead of just one.'

Advantages of Meraki & 802.11n
  • the system is designed for heavy tablet usage
  • built in firewalls segregates and restricts network access from unauthorised devices
  • Security appliances provide easy to manage content filtering and security
  • it operates with complete visibility and control over uses, content and devices
  • an easy to use cloud base management system that can be used without dedicated training.
In Conclusion

A new wireless system need to be simple, reliable and constant. The network and not the devices should be in control, becuase a traditional wireless system gives equal access to all devices, which can congests the network. If as a school you are wanting a large number of handheld devices to access your wireless system, you need a solution that won't let you down leaving your teachers and pupils to get on with what's really important; teaching and learning! I guess the wireless is one of those things schools would be reluctant to shell lots of money on money on, it not glamorous it just makes things work - but it is essential if the iPads and iPods are going to hit the ground running and revolutionise teaching. The advice I am getting is go big and use a managed wireless system, doing so will likely make life easier for everyone. 

As a school we will be buying 16 iPads for Key Stage 1, 16 iPads for Key Stage 2 and iPods for each of the children in Year 6, but first, it's the Managed Wireless System ...


  1. Mr Andrew's,
    Thank you for drawing awareness back to infrastructure. We help many schools achieve what they want to do with the great technology they purchase. However far too many schools are caught out with high spec, expensive kit that wont work as advertised due to a poor network.
    I hope your readers invest in a little more on infrastructure so all the cool tech they have already purchased or plan to purchase works the way they envisioned. Shop around, speak to a few experts and then make your choice. You need the infrastructure before you get to play with the best toys and teaching tools.
    Kind regards
    Jon-Paul Bishop

    1. Your welcome Jon-Paul. Thanks for the comment, some great advice I'll certainly be taking it on board.

  2. We also looked at the infrastructure first and our county ICT department (SchoolsICT) carried out a full assessment of wifi capability along with the contractors before submitting a quote on what we would need. We were given a very comprehensive document detailing the equipment required to give not only the iPads but also all our laptops coverage, and where it would be installed so that internally and externally we would have cover. This is now being carried out - so fingers crossed we got it right - or it's back to the drawing board, cap in hand to the governors and grovelling for more money! Mandy Robinson

    1. Thanks once again for your comment Mandy. Really sounds like you're getting the infrastructure side of things sorted. Once it's place it'll be time to make the most of what the technology has to offer and making a positive impact on teaching and learning.

  3. Sat Cramlington Learning Village we had similar concerns when we introduced 300 android tablets to the network. We discovered that there was no way to be sure if our WiFi could cope. We are lucky enough to have the Trapeze system in place bit even then there was no data on what sort of drain these new devices would introduce.
    Our IT team are excellent though and we decided that we would launch with the current system and if we had problems we would at least have the data to identify a solution. Six months in and so far so good. We're now considering extending the scheme to next year's intake, doubling the number of devices!

    1. Appreciate the comment Graham. That's a really useful feature; been able to know where there are weaknesses in your wi-fi system - I'll look into that, thanks. Just checked out your website, I see you're using Samsung Galaxy tablets. How are you finding them?

  4. Hi Dave,
    Couldn't agree more about getting a reliable wirless network installed. It was a vital part of Cleeve's journey into portable computing and a similar system has had an impact in several other schools. OK, it costs, but I've seen too many ad hoc/domestic systems tried in schools and fail. The adage, 'you get what you pay for' really does hold good for this sort of kit and if you could sling 25 domestic routers round a school and it'd work, then there'd be no need for dedicated wireless systems... but it doesn't, so there is!

    Paul Wright

    1. Thanks for the comment Paul, good to hear from you. I certainly think we're now heading in the right direction with a managed wireless system. Poor wi-fi causes so much frustration from a teaching and learning point of view - been there, done that. Time to get it right!

  5. Hi, you are definitely on the right track to be thinking about a managed wireless system. Your usage will only increase in the coming years so consider the bigger picture of what you will need in future. Think about the amount of physical activity your internet connection has when there are 30 iPads fighting for retrieval of information. Consider a robust, high performance solution such as the Hewlett Packard (Hp) managed wireless solution. This includes server, storage wired and wireless networking solutions. To increase performance there is a system from Exinda that limits or prioritises applications. Simply put... it's a box that sits alongside, and is connected to, your internet connection 'pipe'. It manages and monitors traffic and output up internet pipe. It also manages data, apps and security, can funnel usage of social networking sites to lunchtimes and for individual users. For more information contact
    Hope the info is useful. I have a case study of exactly the above if you would like to see it. Julia

  6. Hi, I am hoping to get a class set of iPads to trial next year. As we have never used Apple products before, everything is geared to Windows... Is it possible to authenticate users + map network drives using iPads with our Windows server?
    Thanks for advice!

  7. Hi All,
    as an installer and technician of wireless networks, the advice I would always give is to speak to a company specifically with proven experience in school wireless networking. I spend the vast majority of my time travelling up and down the UK to troubleshoot other peoples networks, and unfortunately I see several schools weekly that have simply been ripped off. A few simple rules to follow:
    - Check the Vendors reputation
    - try to limit 30 connections to each access point as a maximum under load conditions
    - stick with proven brands for usage in schools, from experience I would always recommend Ruckus, Meru, Cisco - in that order!

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