BIoT Canada

21st Century Classrooms

October 21, 2014  

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For urban communities, taking education to the next level is feasible if you have the budget and the IT resources. For remote communities, where broadband is non-existent or orders of magnitude higher in cost, the stakes can be much higher.

Cisco and a number of partners are hoping to change that. One major initiative is Cisco’s Connected North virtual education program, which was officially launched in Iqaluit, Nunavut in April 2014.

At the heart of the system is a high-definition, two-way video communication and collaboration technology that connects Grades 7, 8 and 9 students at Iqaluit’s Aqsarniit Ilinniarvik Middle School in real-time to teachers, experts and other students across Canada.

The videoconferencing sessions are run over SSI Micro’s Qiniq satellite network. According to Jeff Philipp, CEO of SSi Group in Yellowknife, the company started building its first residential broadband service in Nunavut in 2007. Moving into education and healthcare; however, is a much bigger challenge.

Service delivery relies very much on satellite capacity in space, the bulk of which is provided by Telesat satellites, he explains. “The problem is there is a limited amount and it is going quickly as Internet demands grow. There is simply not enough for education or healthcare in addition to residential.”

Currently there is 300 MB of capacity for servicing the northern network. “The reality is we need three times as much capacity
as we have today. That doesn’t’ exist in space today.” Another
major hurdle is cost. While the average of cost of delivering 1 MB of data in Canada is $10, that number jumps to $10,000 in
northern communities.

High-speed satellite broadband connectivity is also providing the horsepower in a newly launched remote training centre initiative in the Northern Ontario community of Neskantaga (about a one-and-a-half hour flight north from Thunder Bay).

The multi-purpose facility directly connects to e-learning tools and programs for safety training courses, trade and technical certifications, and secondary school education.

Bill Clarke, Aecon’s vice president of aboriginal affairs, Toronto, says it took a year to put together the team that included Cisco Canada, Bell Canada and Galaxy Satellite, among others. The building is a fully kitted panelized structure that was designed to fit into a cargo door of a small aircraft. The setup up includes a four-foot, plug-and-play satellite dish that provides 1 MB upload and download speeds. Connectivity costs run about $2,000 a month.

Clarke says now that the concept is proven, other communities are very interested. “Our vision is to have this project evolve into a national program across the northern part of Canada. Because smaller communities do not have a lot of facilities to accommodate training, it is better to have a complete package rather than retrofitting another structure.”

Building the classroom for the 21st century means having the horsepower and agility to be innovative. “Today education has to allow both faculty and students to be innovative in their teaching and learning,” says Rob Peregoodoff, director, learning services for the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Sauder School of Business in Vancouver.

But what does that innovation look like in this day and age?
It could be videoconferencing classroom content in remote
communities; finding ways to engage students on multiple devices anytime, anywhere; or bringing international connections to a
student’s doorstep.

The one common denominator is that infrastructures have to be faster, more agile, and more powerful and resilient than ever. The insatiable demands of videoconferencing and mobility alone are putting an onus on IT departments to not only build backbones that can meet the pace of change (1 GB Ethernet is a must), but also manage it all effectively without interfering with content delivery.

Sauder was fortunate in that it had an opportunity to build an all new infrastructure in 2009. “We decided that rather than simply upgrading what we have, let’s build the network to be an incubator of creativity and robust enough for many different [teaching] models,” Peregoodoff says.

Sauder was the second prototype for UBC’s new architecture. The Faculty of Medicine was the first to adopt a distributed technology-enabled learning network to expand training to students in Kelowna, Prince George and Victoria.

“They essentially set up a high-touch videoconferencing facility for 100 people, then built a similar infrastructure in ours,” Peregoodoff says. Achieving that level of videoconferencing capabilities requires 1 gigabit drop points to ensure good IP communications. There are a total of 2300 data ports in the entire Sauder Point Grey Campus buildings.

Today the students and faculty mainly use Skype and webinar technologies to connect with international schools and business professionals. “In order to have videoconferencing you have to have a partner on the other end with a comparable structure. Not all business schools do,” Peregoodoff explains.

Connectivity in whatever form is essential to the future of education, he contends. “The notion of global communication collaboration is absolutely critical.  Teaching in our world absolutely has to be wireless, which is why we are planning for student BYOD  full stop. Every student has one, most have two and some have three devices connecting in lecture theatres.”

The latest Sauder innovation is enabling students to write exams over wireless using their own devices. Since the first round, Sauder has conducted a final exam with 800 students. This fall it will be staging 1600 concurrent exams over a dedicated, segmented wireless network (the university also has a campus wide public Wi-Fi network). “We did a presentation in Las Vegas and a lot of schools said their infrastructures simply couldn’t do it,” Peregoodoff says. “They were not confident they had the wireless bandwidth.”

Given the capacity requirements, virtualization was a must. The Network Management Centre at UBC provides virtual network and firewall services to departments and colleges including Sauder, says Sean Wang, network architect, Network Management Centre at UBC. “Virtual network technology allows us to rollout high performance and secured network services quickly based on clients’ requirements rather than having to go through the process of purchasing, installing and configuring hardware. We can easily size the network based on demand. We also use a network management tool to delegate some routing network duties to the client for the self-service.”

Peel District School Board is taking a serious look at supporting a number of new technology-driven educational initiatives, from piloting videoconferencing apps with students in hospitals or at home to a comprehensive mobile program.

A network overhaul in early 2012 ended up doubling the capacity of any other school board in the country, says Mark Keating, chief information officer. “We could stream the Olympics when others could not.”

On top of that it built a BYOD program. At the end of this past school year it had 65,000 BYOD devices on the network that augmented about 25,000 existing wired and mobile devices used in schools. Today the Board is able to support a robust, 21st century kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum that includes a mixture of Android, Windows 8 and iOS, Keating says.

Fiber to every school is 1 gigabit, he adds. “Then we have 10 gigabit to the Internet which is incredibly fast. At peak usage, we consume about 6.5 gigabits.”

A good deal of focus is on device management and redundancy. “When you have that many users you cannot have outages. You have to have a really stable environment that is easy to use, we try to build in resiliency and redundancy in everything we do.”

This year it is looking into a mobile device management solution to manage wireless devices in exactly the same fashion as wired, including the ability to push down or remove apps on devices on an as needed basis as curriculum needs change.

BYOD represents one of the biggest hurdles for educators because they have to be comfortable with every platform, says Franke Martinez, evangelist, SOTI Centre of Excellence for Education in San Francisco. “They need to know how to enable IT systems to support new learners and a digital one-on-one learning environment. How do you bring blended mobility models into schools and make that seamless, while making sure the information is available wherever kids are?”

Management requirements have changed considerably since the days of PCs and desktops in schools. Whereas wired devices were pretty much Microsoft or Apple, Android’s entry is bringing entry level pricing on hardware. “That is a big shift that is happening right in front of us,” Martinez says. “There is no silver bullet out there. Everything must work with everything because you never know what students are going to carry with them.”

The number of ‘gigabit schools’ is growing at an exponential rate. “It is not enough to have Wi-Fi in one or two classrooms. Schools must have gigabit Ethernet coming in to power Wi-Fi in schools and throughout districts. A lot of what has been deployed in the last two years is not enough to handle all Wi-Fi needs. You also need carriers with LTE and 3G networks for anytime access to content.”

Management is much more than simply managing one operating system or type of device. In the new digital frontier it needs to extend to any device, anywhere including desktops, laptops and mobile devices, Martinez explains.

“The standard for IT management have been extended. The most forward thinking educators and IT administrators are architecting entire end-to-end management solutions in which they can touch every device and load Wi-Fi access codes, passwords and SSID, as well as distribute content. It is the same capabilities that are already in the corporate world.”

Ultimately education today is about creating a 24/7 learning environment, Keating believes. “With the right architecture, you can do amazing things.”             C+


Denise Deveau is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached at


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