Magazine article Technology & Learning

Many Paths, One Goal: Real-World Networking Tales

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Many Paths, One Goal: Real-World Networking Tales

Article excerpt

When it comes to building a network, there are as many different approaches as there are school districts. But as these networking case-studies demonstrate, the common denominator is careful planning based on an analysis of the district's resources, problems, and aspirations - both instructional and administrative. Then a flexible design can be drawn up that alleviates immediate pressures and accommodates future plans.

Problem-Solving Networks

Sometimes a specific problem offers a way to conceptualize a network. This approach worked for the Cincinnati Public Schools, where a key consideration in developing its networking plan was the 42 percent mobility rate of its student population. The planning team believed that by instituting a network-based student tracking system, the district would be better able to serve the community and make more efficient use of the resources at hand.

While this mobility rate is about average for large school districts such as Cincinnati, it still meant that the first three weeks of the year were spent figuring out where the enrolled students really were. In the meantime, one school had too many teachers for its students, while another across town was short-staffed and frazzled. One school had more hot lunches than it could use. Others faced hungry students empty-handed.

"We chose to concentrate on the administrative side first," says Dave Hickey, network administrator, "because if you don't know where the kids are, you can't teach them, no matter what your network can do."

Over a period of two years, the district installed a fiber backbone with Ethernet LANs in the high schools and middle schools. Elementary schools each had one workstation connected to the administrative network to start, with LANs to be added in the second phase of the implementation. Compaq servers form the network's foundation, with 3Com switches and hubs providing high-speed connections between the different LANs.

The network has increased efficiency dramatically. For instance, because of information from the new student tracking system, the district now uses smaller vehicles to serve lightly populated bus routes, rather than more costly full-sized buses. In fact, Hickey estimates that in the first year alone the district saved more than $1 million through better teacher and resource allocation.

Hickey believes Cincinnati's decision to concentrate first on administrative applications was the right choice. "Some districts build networks as a hodge-podge, part instruction, part everything else," he says. "And they end up spending more because they're trying to do everything at once."

The Two-pronged Approach

The New Haven Unified School District saw things differently, however. Like many school systems, the northern California district had a hard time justifying the network on purely administrative grounds, believing that kids an teachers need to incorporate computer networks into their work as quickly as possible. New Haven made two goals central to its planning process - improving both instruction and administrative functions.

"We felt it was essential to provide information processing skills to our students," says Modesto Muniz, network architect for the district. "For instance, the science department at the high school won a grant to develop Internet-based curriculum. They need cutting-edge tools now."

To meet these dual goals, Muniz and his staff are installing two networks at each school site - one for instructional use, and one that carries administrative information. Students can log onto the instructional side, where many have e-mail accounts, but the administrative line is blocked to them. The network is built from Bay Networks Ethernet components, and uses a combination of fiber, ISDN, and T1 connections.

Another aspect of the New Haven network is a document management system, which the district hopes will ultimately replace paper and microfiche files. …

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