The power of the network in education

A modern communications and networking infrastructure can benefit all involved in teaching and learning, as Jane McCallion discovers...

This could potentially hold back pupils' academic attainment, as they would not have access to the same tools and materials as children in better-connected areas.

But thanks to the growing acceptance of how important it is for children to have access to all the technological tools at their disposal, better network infrastructure for schools is becoming a target for investment.

Freedom from the lab

It is not just schools that benefit from having better network infrastructure, though.

For university students, advances in networking, combined with new methods of license management, mean students are at liberty to work from anywhere using any device, even when they want to use very specialist software.

As Demetra Katsifli, Senior Director of Industry International Management at Blackboard, explains: "Every university has had computer labs somewhere like the library where you can go and do generic things like access email, carry out some online research, or type up a project for quite some time.

"But until recently, you would have to go to the departmental computer labs to access certain pieces of specialist software. For example, a maths student wanting to use a statistical package like IBM SPSS would need to go to the maths lab."

Now, though, universities can configure their networks to allow students to access these types of specialist software, either by logging on remotely and using their own devices and computers, or from another computer on campus.

"Having been the head of academic IT services, I know the expense associated with having departmental specialist labs for the sake of this specialist, subject-focused software," says Katsifli.

"Now it is delivered through the network, which is a huge step forward," she adds.

Students also benefit, as they are no longer tied to lab opening times and can work on this software at any time they choose, anywhere they choose, whether at home, in the park, or back at their parents' house.

And even though the software is not installed on individual computers, license management is still possible, as the students need to log-on in order to access it.

This can even prove more effective than the traditional model of license management, as it allows administrators to actively monitor the usage of a piece of software, to ensure against over- or under-provisioning.

It's good to talk

Fundamentally, all networks are about communication, and the use of modern networks can enable better communication between people as well as between machines.

Unified communications systems can make sending and receiving messages between staff members more efficient and secure.

Forums can be set up to help discuss lessons, both at the planning stage and after, which is particularly helpful if there is more than one teacher looking after a given class for a given subject.

Meanwhile, instant messages can be delivered to let them know if a student is not at school that day and therefore won't be attending their lesson.

The new kinds of networks and communications systems being introduced into schools also enable parents and teachers to communicate more effectively.

According to Caroline Wright, director of BESA: "those schools that have adopted virtual learning environments (VLEs) and information management systems, can see pupils' attendance, monitor their progress and flag where there might be issues they are worried about.

"Teachers can then share information with parents if they have any concerns and so on."

These same secure systems can be used for things like lunch money payments, or payments of school trips.

In the further and higher education sphere, groups of students or researchers can use communications technology to collaborate on group projects through the cloud.

Institutions can also open up forums for more open discussion of topics between students and lecturers, or to facilitate peer-to-peer learning.

These new communications networks can also help support students who are out in the field, whether on a placement or carrying out research, according to Katsifli. 

"For example, in medicine, you have students going out into hospitals do clinical practice and part of what they are expected to do is capture results and report them as accurately as possible to their supervisor," Katsifli says.

"The technology today allows these sort of students who are out in the field to complete something and immediately send the results of what they have to their lecturer directly from a mobile device. It doesn't matter where you are, it is going to be accurate, it's going to be immediate and you don't have to wait until you get home at midnight to find a computer to log in and to submit your work," she added.

Overall, while not every institution will need the same level of networking infrastructure - a primary school, for example, will not need the same communications capabilities as a university - each educational establishment can benefit in some way from modern networking and communications technologies.

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