Dubai based school takes on digital learning

Sabari School leads its peers in BYOD, with an Apple-based curriculum and iPads for all students

Tags: Aruba NetworksWiFi
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Dubai based school takes on digital learning The capital investment for the project will ultimately be paid through text book fees paid by students, Piriyattiath said.
By  David Ndichu Published  July 19, 2017

How to modernise education delivery is at the heart of most school administrator’s educational goals. Research globally has shown that digital learning boosts education outcomes and is crucial in modernisation of school curricula.

In the region, the UAE in particular has taken the lead in applying technology in education. Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Smart Learning Program through its “smart classes” programme hopes to provide every student with a tablet and access to high-speed 4G networks by 2019.

Private schools have followed suit with adoption of ICT now widespread among institutions in the region, with varying degrees of maturity and adoption.

This was the scenario facing Al Masah Capital Limited when it acquired Sabari Indian School in 2016.

At the time of acquisition, the school had an “acceptable” rating by the KHDA, the Dubai education regulatory authority. Acceptable is the second lowest ranking in KHDA’s four tier rating system.

Immediately, the corporate office embarked on improving the school’s standing, with technology a major part of this push.

The IT department was mandated to deliver an education platform that would immediately differentiate the school from its peers in utilising technology in the classroom, says Ashith Piriyattiath, group head of IT at Al Masah Capital.

Piriyattiath and his team decided to adopt an Apple-based curriculum, and equip all the students with iPads.

Business need

To run these devices in the school requires a robust Wi-Fi infrastructure that can support the demand of mobile devices along with the bandwidth-hungry applications running on them. For example, HD-quality video streaming requires 4 Mbps and some interactive learning games require up to 1 Mbps of bandwidth per user.

The wireless infrastructure in existence was a low bandwidth environment with an insufficient number of access points, and used primarily for teachers and teaching assistants for research.

The deployment of a proper wireless infrastructure was imperative.

The IT team reached out to Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company, to equip the school with indoor and wireless access points.

The project of installing APs got underway early this year and lasted five months.

The first stage of the implementation covered three schools within the Al Janah Group, the education subsidiary of Al Masah Capital, including Horizon International schools, Horizon English School and Sabari.

A total to 300APs were deployed in all the three schools. Sabari has 60, including 59 Aruba Instant indoor access points (55 units of the 200 series and four 210 series gigabit APs), as well as one 270-series outdoor APs that covers the sports fields and other outdoor areas.

The Aruba Instant technology is a controller-less Wi-Fi solution that makes setting up easier. A single AP distributes configurations to the others. “This cuts down implementation time while making future expansions and changes easily manageable by the in-house IT team,” says Piriyattiath.

Product quality as well as the cost won the case for Aruba. The combination of the large volume of devices, as well discounts availed by Aruba exclusive to the education sector, meant Al Masah ended up paying upto to 50% less for the APs.

Technically, a key matrix was for a system that was able to cover every part of the school without any blind spots. Students and their devices are uniquely mobile, moving throughout the school campus during the school day.

Secondly, wireless devices get “sticky” and try to stay attached to the first AP they connect to, even if there is an AP with better connectivity nearby. APs with built-in RF management technology can get rid of sticky clients by gathering session performance metrics from devices and using this information to steer them to the best AP.

ClientMatch technology, inbuilt into the Aruba APs, automatically transitions devices between APs as users roam which translates to better overall performance and speed.
The final stage in the process was to buy and distribute the iPads, initially for Sabari School. Discussions were held with Apple, whose education offering includes substantial discounts.

Apple education

Apple touts its capabilities in the education sector. Its iPads are light enough for students to take with them. iPads’ A9 chip with 64-bit architecture can handle the media rich content students have to work with.

The Apple Education platform has a growing number of content providers in its ecosystem, with thousands of education apps, books, and courses available. Apple has also developed Classroom, an app exclusively for schools.

In April of this year, the IPads were delivered to individual students. There was palpable excitement in the school during the unboxing, says Piriyattiath. “Teachers have been very enthusiastic too as they also get to learn new technologies,” he adds.

The school has carried out a series of training sessions for teachers, students and parents to familiarise everyone with the platform.

The capital investment for the project will ultimately be paid through text book fees paid by students. Piriyattiath says the school expects an ROI in the first two to three years of the project as the system replaces books.

During the initial phase, learning will be a combination of tradition book-based curriculum and digital learning. “Students only carry iPads to and from school, while text books are left and accessible in the classroom,” explains Piriyattiath.

Apart from improving education standards, a secondary consideration was to lighten the burden of the heavy school bags students have to carry, which can weigh up to 5Kgs.

With iPads in place, device enrolment was next. This step allows administration  to simultaneously push the curriculum to all the devices, as well as regular lesson updates and security patches. All the content is delivered from the cloud, from Apple partners.

Much of the curriculum is based on practical topics and projects, Piriyattiath explains. Students are able to execute the projects and model practical lessons on their devices.  Senior classes are also able to simulate lab experiments on their iPads.

Sabari School has availed three different SSIDs at the school, each for students, teachers and guests, with different access rights based on each category.

Students are allowed to access only the content that is appropriate to their academics while in school. The combination of a firewall and mobile device management (MDM) solution is used to restrict and filter content.

On the devices, Sabari has created two different profiles: within the school firewall, students can use the iPads only for academic related material. At home, they can access other apps, including social media, but are still restricted to only age appropriate content.

The previous system would strain to connect more than 15 devices simultaneously. This has been completely addressed, says Piriyattiath.

The students and staff benefit immensely from faster internet access and better control, he adds.

Business benefit

The new Aruba APs can connect upto 40 devices through a single access point with no loss in connectivity or lowering of speed. Classes at Sabari have a population of between 25-30 students.

The school allocates its 100 Mbps bandwidth at 50Mbps for students, 25Mbps for schools management and administration, and 25Mbps for guests. Wireless utilisation is on average at 50% usage for students, since they are not using Wi-Fi at the same time. For teachers, Wi-Fi consumption is around 30%. Weekly bandwidth tests are carried out to detect points of weaknesses.

To secure the devices, Sabari has deployed endpoint security as well as ransomware protection, in addition  to the restrictions based on allocated profiles.

Positive academic and operational results have followed for the school.

Sabari School has been given KHDA approval to add Grade eight for the academic year commencing in April 2017 after successfully completing the approval procedure for the addition of the extra class.

Although still rated only Acceptable by the KHDA in 2016/17, inspectors did note the schools ‘clear vision,’ and highlighted significant improvements since the previous inspection, with innovation cited as a key highlight.

IT management is currently decentralised at the Al Masah network of schools, with between two and three engineers at each institution. From the second half of this year, the group will move to centralise the entire IT management at the headquarters.

The group is also moving its systems to the cloud. A network manager sitting in the head office will be able to centrally oversee the complete server and network infrastructure. A single desktop support engineer will be based in each school.

For the APs, Aruba Central allows the management and monitoring of Aruba Instant APs and switches over the cloud.

Al Masah is taking a different approach with its cloud strategy as well. Most institutions adopting cloud solutions will host their main applications on premises and the disaster recovery on the cloud. Al Masah approach is the complete opposite. It’s hosting its main data centre on the cloud while the DR site will be on-premise.

“We want to utilise the infrastructure we already have in place, while leveraging the advantages of the cloud,” Piriyattiath explains.

In the future, Sabari wants to implement Aruba’s Beacon location services as a student tracking tool. These beacons work with RFID-enabled ID cards and can be installed at the school gate, entrance to classrooms, libraries and buses to automatically registering students when they enter and exit these facilities.

The same beacon technology can be utilised for e-wallet. Students can keep a limit of 500AED on their cards and utilise the same Bluetooth beacons to make purchases of essentials in school stores and canteens.

Sabari is acting as a test case for the entire Al Masah school network. If the project is successful there, it will be rolled out to other schools.

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