Networking trends and challenges in education

A young person using a laptop
Image credit: Pixabay (Image credit: Pixabay)

Many universities and schools are currently navigating the transition to the digital world. Recently, educators have begun to pivot to new teaching methods, embracing new collaboration tools, and hastily upgrading in-classroom technologies. And although the doors to our classrooms and lecture halls have reopened post-Covid, remote courses haven’t gone away.

While traditional classrooms beckon once more, the allure of remote online courses endures, evolving into what we now refer to as hybrid or hybrid flexible (HyFlex) courses.

Naturally, students want the same flexibility and digital empowerment professionals are enjoying. As do many – if not most – teachers. Their lives were more flexible, and their new technological tools have opened a world of possibilities for innovative ways of working together.

However, all this new digital traffic is straining traditional network infrastructures to their limits. And if the network is poor, the hybrid learning experience suffers. But how bad is it? And what can the education sector do about it?

David Savage

VP of Sales at Extreme Networks in the higher education market.

Hybrid and HyFlex learning

Definitions of a hybrid course vary, but it typically offers a mix of classroom instruction with synchronous or asynchronous online sessions. HyFlex is a type of blended course that lets students decide how to attend class: in person, live through a videoconference, or by watching a recording later.

This flexibility accommodates students with different schedules, geographic locations, learning needs, or accessibility requirements. It also lets students balance education with their personal and professional lives, and educators claim it can improve recruitment and retention.

An Anthology/UNESCO study also revealed that 82% of students want at least some of their courses to take place online, while 41% prefer fully online learning.

However, HyFlex learning heavily relies on technology to facilitate seamless communication and interaction between students, instructors, and course resources. Online learning management systems (LMS), video conferencing tools, discussion boards, and other digital platforms play a vital role in supporting content delivery and collaborative activities.

And all that technology relies on the network infrastructure.

The great technification

So, there’s no doubt that schools and universities are taking this technological revolution seriously. However, many university leaders are still scrambling to offer a full curriculum of online courses.

Effective digital collaboration hinges on quality audio-visual (AV) equipment. Surprisingly, a recent study by Sony, found that most European universities — over two-thirds — aren't equipped with enough AV hardware to manage HyFlex courses, and this is just for regular classes.

Courses incorporating VR/AR, robotics, and 3D technology will necessitate updated hardware, leading to increased latency and bandwidth demands on the campus network. Clearly, the digital makeover in schools and universities is far from over.

But there’s one thing they seem to have forgotten: how is a traditional network infrastructure supposed to support all this new technology?

New trains on old tracks

The education sector has a unique opportunity to evolve and embrace the future with rapid advancements. Network infrastructure will have to be upgraded. Just as a bullet train requires modern tracks and not old wooden trestles, our advanced educational methods need the right foundational setup to deliver their promise.

Network tech, fortunately, is undergoing considerable advancements. Wi-Fi 6, especially in dense settings, stands superior to its predecessors. Wi-Fi 6E further enhances this advantage with 6 GHz connectivity promising a significant increase in frequency bandwidth with less congestion.

There’s also a solution that suits schools and universities called Audio Video Bridging (AVB). AVB is a set of IEEE standards that provide improved synchronization, low latency, and reliable delivery of audio and video streams over Ethernet networks. This is particularly useful for educational content like lectures, tutoring sessions, and workshops. AVB achieves this by allocating a specific portion of the network bandwidth for such real-time content. By segmenting the network in this manner, switches can prioritize vital tasks and manage other data traffic more efficiently.

A plan of action

To summarize, the education sector is following the professional world by evolving into physical and digital hybrids. However, all their new tech will overload traditional network infrastructures if nothing is done. The challenges IT leaders and educational administrators must consider as they prepare their campuses for a technological makeover include:

  • Evolving connectivity needs
  • An ever-growing number of user devices
  • Fluctuating bandwidth demands
  • Cybersecurity requirements
  • Data privacy concerns

To summarize, a thorough network reassessment is paramount for educational institutions as they venture further into their tech journey.

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Director of Wireless Networking at the Office of CTO