Tips and Tools for Building a Network

Article excerpt

Networking is like alchemy. Out of the base metal of copper wire (unless you're lucky enough to be using fiber) comes the gold--and power--of human communication. But you may feel that you need magical powers to bring all the complex pieces together to get the gold.

To the untrained ear, the language of local area networking does sound other-worldly, with its Ethernet and Token Ring, but the bad news is that there is no incantation to make it happen--other than the everyday magic of thorough planning and hard work.

The good news is that the effort you put in up front is likely to pay off for your school in the long run. In fact, both vendors and district technology specialists alike say that the place to start your network plan is the same place you'd start any lesson plan--with what you hope your students will get out of it.

"Define your educational needs first," suggests Paul O'Driscoll, director of technology and information services for the Salem-Keizer school district in Oregon. "Your needs will guide the decisions you make about all other aspects of your network--design, vendors, you name it."

And don't be afraid to think big. Because, while the entire process may take a while, knowing ahead of time the kinds of capacities you'd like your network to offer will help you create a scalable plan. For example, letting your teachers access networked school materials from home (something O'Driscoll sees as central to a school's infrastructure planning) might not be possible today, but having it in mind will shape the design parameters, allowing for future growth.

So what are some of the trends to consider?

Here's a hint about one trend: It starts with an I, ends with a net, and you're probably hearing about it every time you turn around. If you guessed the Internet, go directly to the ice cream vendor of choice for your bonus prize. T&L has covered the Internet's educational potential in many ways, but this month we address the issue of connecting your local area network (LAN) to the "network of networks." A wealth of new products, including "preconfigured" servers that come loaded with all the tools you'll need, are making this process as simple as possible.

Networked instructional systems have come a long way from their roots as skill and practice programs. Most have added multimedia elements to enhance and reinforce learning, and many are now experimenting with new ways to take advantage of the existing network by adding elements such as Internet resources and collaborative lesson planning. Others are looking for ways to bring curriculum resources to the home via emerging technologies (for more on this, check out the NII Progress Report, pages 52-60).

As in other areas of computing, speed is a prime concern in networking, especially as schools look for ways to share multimedia resources like CD-ROMs. Some schools and districts are speeding up existing networks through upgrading networking cards, while others are assessing which segments of their networks truly need increased speed, and adding advanced technologies only where necessary.

Networking is an area in which all the complexities of educational technology--technical, ethical, and pedagogical--are seen in sharpest relief. But the alchemist's gold in this case is real. Networking offers new ways for people to work together, both as teachers and as students. And, to borrow a phrase, the paths we choose now will make all the difference in how we learn and who we are in the future. Plan well.

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