Computer Networking in Today's Schools

Students using computers in classroom
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Compared to home and business environments, computers in elementary and secondary schools are being networked with little buzz or fanfare. School networks offer big advantages to teachers and students, but this powerful tool comes with a price tag. Do schools utilize their networks effectively? Should all schools be fully networked, or are taxpayers not getting fair value from the effort to "get wired?"

The Promise

Schools can profit from computer networking in many of the same ways as corporations or families. Potential benefits include:

  • faster access to more information
  • improved communication and collaboration
  • more convenient access to software tools

Theoretically, students exposed to a networked environment in school will be better prepared for future jobs in industry. Networks can help teachers to complete better online lesson plans and forms from a variety of locations -- multiple classrooms, staff lounges, and their homes. In short, the promise of school networks seems almost unlimited.

Basic Network Technology

Ultimately students and teachers are interested in working with network software applications like Web browsers and email clients. To support these applications, several other technologies must first be put in place. Collectively these components are sometimes called the "architecture," "framework," or "infrastructure" necessary to support end-user networking:

  • computer hardware
  • network operating systems
  • network hardware

Computer Hardware

Several different types of hardware could conceivably be used in a school network. Desktop computers generally provide the most networking flexibility and computing power, but if mobility is more important, notebook computers also may make sense.

Handheld devices offer a lower-cost alternative to notebooks for teachers wanting basic mobile data entry capability. Teachers can use the handheld system to "take notes" during class, for example, and later upload or "synchronize" their data with a desktop computer.

So-called wearable devices extend the "small and portable" concept of handhelds one step further. Among their various uses, wearables can free a person's hands or augment the learning experience. Generally speaking, though, wearable applications remain outside the mainstream of network computing.

Network Operating Systems

An operating system is the main software component controlling the interaction between people and their computer hardware. Today's handhelds and wearables typically come bundled with their own custom operating systems. With desktop and notebook computers, however, the opposite is often true. These computers can sometimes be purchased with no operating system installed or (more typically) the operating system that comes pre-installed can be replaced with a different one.

The New Zealand survey revealed that the most popular operating system in secondary schools there was Microsoft Windows/NT (used in 64% of locations) followed by Novell NetWare (44%) with Linux a distant third (16%).

Network Hardware

Handhelds and wearables usually also include built-in hardware for networking functions. For desktop and laptop computers, however, network adapters must often be chosen and purchased separately. Additional, dedicated hardware devices such as routers and hubs are also needed for more advanced and integrated networking capabilities.

Applications and Benefits

Many primary and secondary schools have Internet and email access; the New Zealand study cites numbers above 95%, for example. But these applications are not necessarily the most powerful or practical ones in a school setting.

Other popular applications in schools include word processing and spreadsheet programs, Web page development tools, and programming environments like Microsoft Visual Basic.

A fully networked school can offer several benefits to students and teachers:

Students can share files faster and more reliably than they can using floppy disks. Central printers can be made accessible to students more conveniently.
Teachers can carry out their day-to-day communications with each other more efficiently through email and messaging. News and class project information can be easily disseminated to students.
Students can more easily collaborate on group projects using network software applications.

Effective School Networks

School networks do not come for free. Besides the initial expense of hardware, software, and setup time, the network must be managed on an ongoing basis. Care must be taken to keep student's class records and other files protected. It may be necessary to establish disk space quotas on shared systems.

Special care must be taken with school networks that have Internet access. Inappropriate use of gaming or pornography sites, as well as the use of network-intensive applications like Napster, often need to be monitored and/or controlled.

The New Zealand survey of school networks points out:

"With networking becoming more common in schools, particularly secondary schools, the question of whether a school has network connections becomes less important than the extent of networking within a school. This survey found that about 25% of all schools are "fully networked" - that is, 80% or more of their classrooms were linked by cabling to other rooms."

It is nearly impossible to measure quantitatively the value of a school network. Corporate intranet projects have a difficult time calculating overall return on investment (ROI), and the issues with schools are even more subjective. It is good to think of school network projects as an experiment with the potential for huge payoff. Look for schools to continue to become more "fully networked" and for the educational possibilities of these networks to evolve at a rapid pace.

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