Kent school ushers in a new wireless era

Mark Dye reports on a wireless transformation by the New Line Learning Academies’ Federation in Kent that has changed the way in which pupils are taught

Kent school ushers in a new wireless era

Education is one of the many sectors to have been positively affected by the benefits technology brings and within a short space of time students have gone from being static bookworms to avid consumers of the information superhighway and latterly the mobile internet.

One organisation hoping to take full advantage of this shift has been The New Line Learning Academies’ Federation, which recently embarked on a transformation of its two sites in Maidstone, Kent in an attempt to fundamentally change the way in which students were taught.

The idea was to completely rebuild the two existing sites that cater for some 2,300 pupils and transform them into wireless hubs, giving their 11-18-year-old students and teachers a platform for flexible interactive e-learning that would allow them to work wherever they needed to.

New technologies

Of course, if you are in your thirties you can probably still remember life pre-email, so the idea of doing everything wirelessly may seem strange.

According to Charles Ealham, director of new technologies, New Line Learning Academy, the forward thinking idea was the brainchild of chief executive Dr ChrisGerry.

‘His vision,’ says Ealham, ‘was to transform the way education is delivered, moving away from classrooms and towards a plaza type of environment. The task was finding the technology to fit with this.’

Ealham says that there were originally three schools in Maidstone and that these were merged into two following the appointment of the new chief executive, whose idea it was to marry up technology with education to produce a blended learning experience.

‘It’s moved along with the technology, meaning some of the lessons are more integrated
now,’ explains Ealham. ‘So they might mix history and IT and humanities all as one subject with technology being a leader.’

This has seen a move away from the traditional teaching style of one teacher in a room with 30 children all sitting in rows, to all pupils being issued with mobile laptops and being taught in open learning plazas that hold year groups of 120 students.

Learning plazas

To get there, Ealham says the academies went through several iterations. ‘We moved into our new build in September of this year, but prior to that we did a couple of mock-up plazas. This represents a marked shift from the first generation plaza, which was built about four years ago without any technology in there at all,’ he explains.

‘Then when the second generation plaza was constructed we put a lot more technology into it and in terms of wireless we had four HP access points. However, we soon found that it didn’t work very well with the amount of users we had trying to log on.’

Access points

Ealham says that by the time they had got to what he refers as his ‘third generation plaza’ just over a year ago, he had thoroughly researched what was needed in terms of wireless and through a recommendation had been introduced to new wireless technology in the form of access points from Meru Networks.

Four of these were purchased, put into practise last April and have been running for a year-and-a-half with no problems – a move that led to a further 87 being deployed in the new build.

‘The access points we are using are AP3000, which are POE to the server/hub rooms. The controller is a MC3000 and we currently have 86 APs. We chose Meru because we had heard good things about it. At first, we only purchased four APs and a 1500 controller and tested it in one plaza.

'As we were happy with the results we purchased it for the whole new build,’ explains Ealham. ‘The best thing for us was that we found we didn’t get any complaints at all,’ he adds. ‘In a school environment that’s definitely a good sign. The second something doesn’t work you know about it.’

Prior to this the colleges had found existing wireless networks had begun to fail when more than 20 users tried to log-on simultaneously, so the challenge for those involved was to overhaul existing facilities and move towards high-performance wireless networks that could be relied upon and had minimal network management issues.

With around £62m having been invested in rebuilding the sites, good coverage was required throughout the e-learning plazas in order to realise Dr Gerry’s dream of a skills based curriculum where students would use wireless netbooks and state-of-the-art audio visuals to dramatically improve the whole teaching and learning experience.

Single-channel cells

Ealham believes this was made possible by working closely with Meru Networks and the installation integrator Building Zones to deploy a wireless LAN based on a single-channel virtual cell architecture.

This, he says, has led to a distinctive virtual cell wireless LAN set-up, meaning the academies are able to run 802.11n at full speed in both spectrums while simultaneously supporting a constant high density of users without any dropouts, disconnections or other interruptions to service.

Meru’s ability to offer the academies a single-channel Virtual cell architecture was seen as vital going forward, because with access points on the same channel and the entire network configured like this, users are able to roam smoothly within the cell.

Ealham says this has freed the college from previous headaches associated with network jitters and allowed New Line to make advances in other areas with a seamless solution that is completely tailored to their specific needs.

Web based learning

Every student is now issued with a laptop from Stone Computers as standard and accesses securely locked down resources through Microsoft SharePoint.

‘So they will be downloading documents, modifying them and then uploading them again,’ adds Ealham. ‘Teachers will connect in the same way but will be using the management information system to put the registered details in or access from SharePoint.’

Indeed, it seems the academies are embracing the cloud as Ealham looks towards a future where he sees everything being web based and online. ‘With the wireless we’ve got, we’ll easily be able to adapt as we are using a software plus services scenario,’ he adds.

Another neat advance that has been made is a nine-screen video wall inside the plaza. This is made up of individual 40-inch screens and allows teachers to wirelessly select nine pupils workscreens and send them to the wall for the purposes of demonstration.

There’s a real feeling from those involved in the project that teachers are also benefiting from the changes. While the open plazas have fostered a greater sense of community and bonding among pupils, the open environment has also allowed teachers to share knowledge and collaborate more easily.

A wireless future

There are other benefits, as David Simons, head of Cornwallis Academy, one of the sites involved, explains. ‘The kids are already becoming more independent and resourceful,’ he says. ‘They’re better at self-regulating their own behaviour and working in teams, and they’ve really started thinking about the bigger questions, too.’

And with teacher training also having been positively affected by the changes put in place, it appears Dr Gerry’s vision of a wireless hub for education in the 21st century is finally taking shape.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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