Whiteboards and wireless

Six Al Ain schools are getting an IT makeover, and the new administrators have big plans for building up the networks. NME goes back to school.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  October 2, 2006

|~|fayrouz200.jpg|~| “The main method of communicating between the schools at the moment is email, so the wireless connectivity helps us stay in contact with the other schools.” Fayrouz Bedawi, IT facilitator, Nord Anglia Education.|~|The current boom around the Middle East has put a focus on education; governments across the region are investing heavily to ensure future generations are able to contribute to an increasingly demanding economy. In the UAE, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) is bringing in public-private partnerships (PPPs) to increase the returns on investment which can be achieved by using specialist education companies. Nord Anglia is such an organisation, originally from the UK but with operations around the world, including schools in China, Russia and the Czech Republic. Adec has awarded Nord Anglia a contract to run six primary and kindergarten government schools in Al Ain, with the administration starting last month. Each school has between 800 and 1,200 pupils. One of the main focuses of Nord Anglia’s three year contract will be the introduction of new IT equipment and infrastructure, to improve the efficiency of the schools, but more importantly to enhance the quality of the education available to the pupils. “Our primary focus for the IT project is from the educational point of view – it will allow us to have networked computers in the classrooms and libraries, meaning we can share resources across the schools, and use the internet in the classrooms,” says David Kavanagh, business manager at Nord Anglia Education. “It will give the flexibility to allow each computer to be used standalone, or on the network; if all goes to plan, each school will have its own local intranet service.” Nord Anglia has a four-phase programme for bringing IT into the schools, spread over the three years of the contract. Phase one, which consisted of bringing all six schools up to the same IT level, introducing an initial wired and wireless infrastructure and installing interactive whiteboards, is now complete. Fayrouz Bedawi, IT facilitator at Nord Anglia, explains how the schools are using the wireless network: “For the time being, we have the wireless in the library and the administration building. We’re just using the wireless network to access the internet at the moment – we’ve issued a number of laptops for the teachers’ use; Nord Anglia staff have their own laptops already. The main method of communicating between the schools at the moment is email, so the wireless connectivity helps us stay in contact with the other schools.” In addition to the main wired and wireless LAN systems, two of the schools had another networking challenge. Their admin blocks were some distance from the main school buildings, meaning some form of networking would be needed to bridge the gap. Nord Anglia actually made this one of the key parts of the tender to provide IT – they asked potential contractors how they intended to solve the problem. The education company finally selected Al Ain-based Computer Care for the project, both on the strength of its plans and its cost-effectiveness. The integrator proposed using US Robotics networking equipment, with Acer servers and HP PCs. Kavanagh says: “The overall cost of the initial stage was around AED1 million (US$272,000), and the total time for the initial deployment was 23 days. The teams had to work around building and decorating work going on in the schools at the time, so that complicated things further. But when it was completed we were more than happy with the project – the Computer Care team did a fantastic job.” As for the remote admin buildings, the company deployed a wireless link, which fitted the requirements of the schools and Nord Anglia, according to Kavanagh. “To cover the distances, we use high-gain antennas; one of the concerns we have is, because it is line-of-sight, we may have to engage in some strategic pruning of vegetation which has been planted in the gap,” he says. “The system operates on the standard wireless 2.4GHz spectrum.” Although the implementation within the main school buildings was more straight forward, Nord Anglia still had to be mindful of its future plans for the schools’ IT infrastructure. According to Kavanagh, the two biggest challenges were both physical: the sheer solidity of the school buildings, which made installing the fixed wire networks a challenge; and the lack of power points, with those present sited near the ground – an issue around children. To get around this, Nord Anglia opted for a power over Ethernet system, which supplies power to the necessary network infrastructure components. For example, in each library the wireless router is mounted on the ceiling, with only one Ethernet cable required to supply data and power. The buildings’ solid construction is also an issue when it comes to the wireless networks, as Kavanagh explains: “We have wireless in the library, the meeting room and the administration block. Because the walls are so solid, it does affect the signal – the strength declines rapidly once you’re outside of a room with a wireless transceiver. Because of this, for non-communal rooms we fit a fixed data point so staff can plug straight in.” Looking to the future, the next stage of building up the IT infrastructure will be to install additional PCs in the classrooms, especially of the higher grades, and also put interactive whiteboards in each classroom, in addition to the current whiteboard in each library. “We want everyone to become comfortable with the technology, and expand the system’s capabilities to suit them,” explains Kavanagh. The total cost of the next three phases is likely to be around $136,000 per phase, although Nord Anglia may identify additional requirements. As for more ambitious networking plans, such as connecting the six schools together over a WAN, Kavanagh says it is a possibility, but only further into the future. “We have the potential in the future to link the schools together to form a wider intranet system, but we’re not going down that route for now – we’re getting each school connected internally, and taking a slow and steady approach,” he says. “In terms of networking between the schools, that’s a bit of a wishlist at the moment – it’s something that we’d like to do, but we’re concentrating on the individual schools at the moment.”||**||

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