WIFI, the Cloud, and the Sofas

The first time the BYOD concept comes up in a meeting people naturally ask questions and worry about the state of the IT infrastructure. The first question is always about the WIFI. Can the WIFI handle the number of users? Do we have enough WIFI? What happens if the WIFI stops working? Can we allow Youtube because the WIFI will be too slow? The questions go on and on.

The short answer is that you need good WIFI in the areas where the BYOD program is being rolled-out. However, you do need to know that people will always complain about the WIFI. People complain about the WIFI everywhere. With regard to WIFI, there are three things to consider when determining if you are ready to support BYOD:

  1. What percentage of the target area has coverage? This means a WIFI signal is present and at least 20%-30% in strength.
  2. What kind of density does your WIFI have? This means how many people in a given area can actually get on and use the WIFI in a 60 second period.
  3. Do you have a WIFI implementation that is easy to expand on? This means can you add an extra WIFI access point and/or move a point in less than twenty-four hours.

The first point, everyone can get their heads around. School administrators and teachers can easily work together to improve coverage by reporting dead zones. However density is tricky. Now there are plenty of good engineers out there that have the gear needed to map a space and predict density issues. However, I have yet to see this in a school. I have seen it at trade shows, but I have never seen a school pay for this or budget for the gear to do it themselves.

So to do it on the cheap, and that means for free, here is what I did at my school in the section of the building that was having the most issues. I created a form on Google Apps and linked it to the school’s homepage. The form was simple and looked like this:

wifi_reporting_form

This is simple and straightforward. There is no login required, which is key for quick data collection. We would check the data every few hours and then send the results to the network technician. He would then look at a map, and since the WIFI access points were marked, he could make a decision about what to do.

Never ask people if the WIFI is “good”. They will always say it is slow, or even better say something like it is great until I try to print. Most users do not pay attention to what they were doing when things got slow, just like the police will tell you that eyewitnesses are unreliable so, too, are WIFI opinions.

You might be wondering how you collect this data unless you already are doing a BYOD program. Most schools have some laptops for students to use, so to test an area you can use those. If your school has nothing, then coordinate twenty to thirty students to come in and do some testing. That is twenty to thirty per room. So if you could arrange sixty people between three rooms, all in the same location, that would give you some good density information.

Before the group connects, have one person get on and open the form so they can report. Data is how you solve problems, not with meetings focused on complaints. Assume you need to collect WIFI data every time the BYOD program pushes into a new section. Make this a requirement and explain to people why it is important.

The third point is more technical regarding the way the WIFI has been implemented. To ensure it is implemented correctly, your networking engineer or sub-contractor should be able to answer all of these questions with one word, “YES”:

  1. Can you add an Access Point to a classroom or hallway in under 48 hours?
  2. Do we have user devices
  3. +300 ip addresses?
  4. Is the WIFI on its own VLAN?
  5. Are all our Access Points managed?

These questions will ensure that the networking specialist is planning a network that can handle a BYOD program. There are other technical recommendations I could make, but the current state of WIFI technology is that it is changing. New types of devices are coming out that have a variety of strengths and weaknesses. I want to avoid brands and specifications at all costs.

These general questions,though, are not going to change in the near future. When dealing with the technical side of things, non-technical people need to be able to start and finish a conversation. If you do not get a simple ‘YES’ to these four questions, then be warned, something is amiss. At that stage, I would treat this like a bad ankle and get a second opinion.

After the great WIFI debate is over you must plan for storage and access to media. I eliminated all local storage. Teachers and students were moved to cloud-based storage a year before BYOD so they could get used to it. In addition, I strongly discourage the use of external USB devices unless large amounts of data are involved.

You cannot serve two masters. The local storage model of old does not fit into a model designed to allow access to resources from anywhere. There are many ways to organize and use cloud-based storage and resources. The obvious solution for most schools is Google Apps for Education. It is free and will allow people to create, upload, share, and collaborate. Google Apps meets the BYOD philosophy and costs nothing.

However, if the school has a good webserver or can budget for one, open source products such as Drupal, Moodle, Joomla, and Zenphoto offer powerful tools for sharing and managing files for the cost of a webserver and someone to install the applications.

Many schools are already paying for Microsoft Server licensing, which means they have access to Sharepoint. If you have the ability to host Sharepoint off-campus it will provide tools for storage and collaboration as well. It is normally bundled with other products so it is paid for, however it does need to be configured so people off-campus can use it.

You can also go decentralized, where you allow students to choose their own cloud based solution. Whatever you do remember that the final document that goes home must require an online storage component of some kind.

The technical conversations are needed, but exhausting. The best conversation BYOD brings to the table is about sofas, power, furniture, and the like. You should re-read that because it is crucial for the administration, teachers, and students to develop a good ergonomic plan for a BYOD program.

Here are some things to consider budgeting for and implementing:

  1. Students need flexible work spaces, so get desks that are easy to move around in the classroom.
  2. Do not worry about stringing power everywhere. In each room, one five to seven port power strip will be fine. It is NOT the teacher’s responsibility to charge laptops.
  3. Sofas and large comfortable chairs in a common areas are always a good draw for the BYOD user. Make sure they are positioned close to power.
  4. Use the FACE-OUT method. This means when BYOD students are working, their screens should face out into the open. Blind spots create the opportunity to do things you do not want them to do
  5. Large tables are great. Cut slots in the center and wire them for power. Plug the table in, and four to eight people can charge and work at once.
  6. Have common areas where students should not have laptops. Areas that are for sports, art, drama, etc., are the most common places laptops get destroyed. So manage this with common sense and signage.
  7. Avoid floor sitting and bean bags of any kind. Remember that a laptop on the floor is very likely to be totally destroyed. Students like to lay around, and this is normally inefficient for working but somehow enhances their coolness.

Technology can always be a challenge. Things like WIFI, media sharing, and printing will always be in a state of flux. Policies will shift. Ideas will emerge. Equipment will break. The ebb and flow never seem to cease, but creating a comfortable workspace is a constant. Even if students do not have laptops, a good workspace is a good workspace. Facing screens out is the same as facing books out. If you encourage transparency above spying and snooping, you will see a difference in behavior almost immediately.

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