Examining Computer Networking in Today's Schools

What's the deal with school networks?

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

Students using computers at school

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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 the industry. Networks can help teachers complete better online lesson plans and forms from various locations—multiple classrooms, staff lounges, and their homes. In short, the promise of school networks seems almost unlimited.

Basic Network Technology

Students and teachers are interested in working with network software applications like web browsers and email clients. To support these applications, schools must first put several other technologies 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 distinct types of hardware could be used in a school network. Desktop computers provide the most networking flexibility and computing power, but if mobility is important, notebook computers 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.

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. 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. Schools can sometimes purchase these computers with no operating system installed, or (more typically) the operating system that comes pre-installed can be replaced with a different one.

Network Hardware

Handhelds and wearables usually 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 advanced and integrated networking capabilities.

Applications and Benefits

Most primary and secondary schools have internet and email access. Other popular applications in schools include word processing and spreadsheet programs, web page development tools, and programming environments.

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

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

Effective School Networks

School networks aren't free. Besides the initial expense of hardware, software, and setup time, an administrator must manage the network 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.

Schools must take particular care with school networks that have internet access. Inappropriate use of gaming, social media, or adult sites needs to be monitored and controlled.

It is nearly impossible to measure the value of a school network quantitatively. Corporate intranet projects have difficulty calculating overall return on investment (ROI), and the issues with schools are more subjective.

It is good to think of school network projects as an experiment with the potential for a huge payoff. Look for schools to continue to become fully networked and for the educational possibilities of these networks to evolve at a rapid pace.

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