Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Digital Natives Need Infrastructure

I visited Riverside Secondary School last week to spend a few hours in their Digital Immersion 9 class.  Students can sign-up online using this web formMicrosoft Windows SharePoint Services LogoThis class consists of about 30 students who spent first semester together as a class learning digital tools, Science, and Math with one teacher.  As of February they are with a new teacher, Elizabeth Bancroft, all morning learning English and Socials.  The expectation is that most learning and teaching will supported by digital tools. 

Ms. Bancroft expressed to me her frustration with how things were working - mainly how the technology "wasn't" working...  I had read positive reviews in the local paper and viewed a positive news video.  Note that you may want to read James McConville’s post about his visit to this class.  I needed to see the class in action for myself.  I had an opportunity to share with the students some of my thoughts about blogging, writing for an audience, etc. and how that’s potentially more motivating then just writing for marks or your teacher to read.

These kids all have blogs (check their class blog for the student contributors) which they use for some of their assignments.  The teacher is using various tools to support class activities including their virtual classroom (in my43) to provide resources, have discussions, blog more privately, share documents, youtube, Google Docs for assessments, more sharing, Blogger for public blogging, to name a few.  They all have either a personally owned laptop, a rented laptop from the school, or a school supplied laptop.  Wireless network access is an essential requirement for this class to function effectively.  My mantra that “wireless should be just like oxygen” is what they need but it seems what they have is “wireless that barely works”.  Riverside teachers and students significantly adopted technology to support teaching and learning.  This use seems to have outstripped the infrastructure’s capacity to deliver.  Or has it…

During my visit I learned how frustrating it can be for students and their teacher when the digital infrastructure doesn’t work.  While I was their, Ms. Bancroft wanted to see how the kids would experience an online test using a Google Spreadsheet.  They talked about how to prevent cheating such as seeing each other’s answers, using the Internet to find the answers, etc.  But the conversation degraded into what to do when the network fails.  The kids were asking to do the test on paper or offline so that they could avoid the frustration and disruption - remember, this is a digital immersion class, paper should be a last resort.  Ms. Bancroft also tried to show an online Socials resource and had to plug in for it to work at all.  And even then, the Internet connection was so slow, the experience just wasn’t worth it.  I asked the kids for their thoughts on what the problem is and how to solve it.  We talked about how the behaviour of other students was affecting educational use in a negative way.  They had some technical suggestions:
  • create a special wireless network for their class and give them some guaranteed bandwidth
  • limit the network bandwidth students use for non-educational purpose to something small
When I had to leave I asked the kids if they had any further questions or comments.  I was asked straight-up, “when will this problem be fixed?”.  Ouch.  I couldn’t give them a definitive answer but suggested that we need to fix it before the next school year.  Incidentally, the principal told me the frustrating experience was negatively affecting enrolment for the class for 2010-2011… 

Yikes!  This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.  Something is seriously wrong with the network infrastructure.  Or is there…  This experience is becoming quite common place in our secondary schools (grade 9-12) and somewhat at the middle level (grade 6-8).  We have an open policy that encourages students to bring their personally owned devices to use at school.  For middle and secondary schools we have wireless access available through-out the schools.  1000’s of students have embraced this opportunity.  Unfortunately the most significant use seems to be for bittorrent, facebook, video streaming (not educational use) and other questionable purposes.  These uses are outstripping the network infrastructure’s capabilities and they don’t necessarily relate to the purpose of the network.  We are philosophically apposed to blocking so are careful to only go that route when necessary.  We’ve tried to block bittorrent but so far unsuccessfully.  We need to find ways to carefully limit the social and non-educational uses so that this use doesn’t interfere with the work teachers and students are needing to do in a digital way to support their learning and teaching.

I would really appreciate hearing from folks that have solved this problem in a way that doesn’t require general blocking.  What technical solutions have you implemented and how have they worked for you?  What supervision and consequence processes have you put in place to minimize this disruptive use?


  1. Hi Brian. This is a common issue, yet quite complex. It is really about resource allocation within the school (or even the district), with the wireless bandwidth being a limited resource. The students are asking for someone to decide that their use of the resource is more valid than someone else's use of the resource and therefore either allocate more $ to provide additional resource to them or to curtail the use of others. We have staff asking the same thing every day.

    While I personally agree with them, technological fixes such as blocking are pretty blunt instruments for resource allocation. We are always being asked to use tech fixes to do what is really a supervision issue. While we do it, it never makes everyone happy.

    In my district we do lots of blocking, but only after an administrative decision has been made defining what is an inappropriate use of the resource. Applying tech fixes to allocate resources between two appropriate (or undefined) uses is likely to please no one.

  2. Layer 7 traffic is what you need to manage. Rather than get too granular and choose what to block based on application type, a simpler, albeit powerful solution is bandwidth arbitration. SD72 will be going open wireless for Sept 2010, and this has been defined as a pre-requisite by the IT department. Check out: http://www.netequalizer.com/ for more details.

    Geoff Wilson
    Manager of IT
    SD72, Campbell River

  3. Mark: you've confirmed the complexity of the problem for me for sure. I think it needs to be a combination of least invasive technical and behavioral and discipline where necessary. Thanks for sharing your pain :-)

    Geoff: Layer 7, sounds like a cake model... I will get our network gurus to check out the tool you suggest - thanks!

  4. We're just getting into the wireless playground here. It's something we held off on for years until we were confident that we could deploy something enterprise class and manageable. We were fortunate to have a new high school open this past fall, and used monies there to purchase the "base" for a district wide wireless system, so that expansion from here is pretty much as simple as buying more access points.

    It has required a major shift in our attitude around outside technology. In the past, it's been largely a NIMBY approach. Now, we are embracing and encouraging the use of personal devices. Our biggest asset has been our hardware based firewalls - they allowed us to segment the wireless network into two discrete networks. One network is only accessible from district owned and managed devices, which will behave just as a wired device would. The other network is open to all staff and students (uses RADIUS authentication, so they username and password they already know is their key), but is on a separate, private subnet. It protects our network from viruses and malware that may walk in the door without limiting people's ability to bring whatever they have.

    So far, we haven't been running into bandwidth issues on the student side, but as usage increases, we'll have to start making some decisions. I can see us using the firewalls to implement traffic shaping (The IPS that's built in is _fantastic_ at stopping P2P).

    The interesting development is that the school - before wireless - was blocking things like YouTube as the level of misuse was perceived to out weigh the educational use. When the wireless came in and the "open" side of it didn't have that block in place by default, nobody had an issue. Now, that school almost never uses the PA system and uses YouTube to post daily videos for school announcements.

  5. Adam - we have separate wireless networks (SSID's) for district/school owned vs privately owned vs guest, each with their own particular configuration and management requirements. We're considering QoS / bandwidth limiting or guaranteeing which our wireless solution supports. The IPS piece - we've used that to some degree on our firewall but "services" like bittorrent are hard to zero in on surgically without affecting other legitimate services. Do you have any experience with bittorrent blocking?

    We have 1000's of students bringing personally owned devices... when you start to see that in your schools, you'll experience the challenge we're facing to keep things open but useable...

  6. The IPS we use is built in to a subscription based hardware firewall solution (It's like Symantec and those guys, you buy the product, but subscribe annually to keep it updated). (I'm hesitant to promote/solicit any specific product here, but it starts with "A" and rhymes with "staro"). The IPS is broken in to the general IPS section to filter attacks, DDoS, etc, but there's a separate section for IM & P2P that's broken down by service. The nice part is, the vendor keeps these rules trimmed and up-to-date, so we just choose whether we want something on or off and don't worry about the details.

  7. Bandwidth issues are not just limited to Middle and High Schools. At our elementary school, we are experiencing the same frustrations. However, we can’t point the finger at non-educational use. The digital natives don’t have their own wireless devices.
    The number of computers in our school has more than doubled – the bandwidth has not. As well, the demand for bandwidth FOR EDUCATIONAL USE has surged. Teachers want to stream videos to support lessons. Kids want to run highly graphical learning activities. Classes want to use Web 2.0 apps to support and present learning (and to save money on purchased software). These are quickly being abandoned because the finite resource of “teachable time” is being eaten up by “bandwidth wait time”. Teachers are abandoning new lesson ideas, and frustrated students are losing the motivation.

  8. I agree with Ken. I attended a great skype session with a grade 3, and 6/7 class and 3 astronomers from the University of Toronto. It went really well but they had to ask the entire school not to use the internet/computers for the half hour. The pipe into our schools is just not large enough to accommodate the teachers and students who want to use web 2.0 tools. Working hard with PLNet right now on upgrades by most is falling on us at the moment to pay for upgrades and monthly uplifts until they have money in their budget...

    On the network side, we're looking at increasing the scope at several schools due to all the PODs coming in and are going to have to move to an allow policy and reinforce educational use when people sign up to have their POD connected to the wireless.

  9. Ken - great point. The issue is different for elementary, it would seem to be pure educational demand rather than misuse. We simply need to get our elementary schools the access they need before teachers completely give up!

    Jarrod - I think the idea of moving to an "allow" policy has some merit. I was thinking about this recently when updating my XM Radio profile. I have to have an XM Radio registered or it won't connect to the XM network. It's a 1-time registration - not too onerous. Perhaps something similar for students bringing their own PODs could work.

  10. We've recently completed installation of blanket wireless to all of our schools. We didn't want to blow a huge budget right away on wireless and have managed to get away with using Linksys WRT54GL routers & DD-WRT open source software to enhance the feature set these routers deliver. This includes blocking things like bittorrent and other p2p protocols. It's working well so far for us on a budget minded level.

  11. Hi Josh - thanks for sharing the tools you're using in SD71.