Data Center Design in Education – The Impact of Virtual Learning
For the first time in history, K-12 schools are being forced into a virtual learning environment.
While technical school, college, and university students have had access to online learning for years, few—if any—primary schools have had to resort to using virtual learning as their main education platform.
Technology professionals in school districts are having to look at the impact on their data center infrastructure and evaluate how and where, and at what cost, improvements need to be made.
The Impact on Families and Educators
The Challenges for Students
With this in mind, let’s first take a look at the challenges a 3rd grade student might face with virtual learning from home.
Mary is a typical third grader at Sunnyside Elementary, a rural school in central Wisconsin. She started working with Chromebooks in K2, but they stay in carts in the classroom. At the end of the school day, Mary returns to her home in a predominantly agricultural county of 40,000 people.
At home, they stream movies on their television via a satellite system that is the only internet option available to them. Their old computer gets little use except for getting dinner recipes or checking Facebook. Mom works part-time at a bank and Mary’s dad has been laid off since the downturn in the local tourism industry.
As you can already guess, for Mary, virtual learning is going to be difficult without at least updating their home computer, and most likely upgrading their internet streaming service to allow for multiple devices in use at once.
But with many families who have faced with economic hardships during this time, this is not likely an option.
The Challenges of Teachers
What about the teachers at Sunnyside Elementary?
Just as with Mary, the teacher is likely to have older computer equipment unable to support multiple online learning sessions.
And adopting new technologies isn’t always easy. The virtual learning platforms (Seesaw, Google, Zoom, etc.) can be unfamiliar and intimidating.
The Challenges of Meeting the Needs
When families and teachers have access only to minimal acceptable technology, schools may be pushed towards more distance learning where there is no online interaction between teachers and students. While distance learning may work for the older students, in a K-6 environment, this might be significantly more difficult. As reported in the Green Bay Press Gazette:
“A district survey of secondary students this month showed only about half of students reported feeling confident using a computer to attend online class. Just over 60% said they did OK with the online learning environment, while 22% said they didn’t. Students struggled, parents struggled, teachers struggled, staff struggled…”
Now let’s look at the Sunnyside Elementary data center infrastructure.
Sunnyside is a small school of 200 students in grades K-6. It is a “dark site,” which means they do not have an IT staff member on site.
So when things go wrong, they must utilize the IT staff in the district’s main data center. They have an intermediate distribution frame (IDF) in a network closet at the school, but they only can reboot it as instructed.
Being a smaller school district of only four K-12 schools, their budget for IT is very restricted. While technology receives 2% of revenue for the school district, it shares this revenue with the security systems, the software, and the people necessary to maintain and run these systems. Looking at the per student cost, the district has just $236 per child for technology and security needs.
In the last budget, the school district allocated money for software updates. Server software was updated to Windows 10, and some of the servers were upgraded from Microsoft Server 2008 to Microsoft Server 2016. The fact that the upgrade was from Server 2008 to Server 2016 may be an indicator of just how old the equipment may be.
Additionally, a damaged fiber line was replaced at the high school for stronger stability and reliability. The wireless network within the buildings received new access points in order to handle a larger bulk of devices as well as a stronger and faster connection.
While this may improve the high school building, this isn’t much help for the students at Sunnyside.
From this example, we can see that while the Sunnyside Elementary upgraded Wi-Fi may be faster and have more access points, those points are within the school buildings, which can’t help students learning from home. And even though the schools have virtual meeting software, the equipment may not be ready to support 2,528 students and 325 teachers in virtual learning.
As we’ve discovered, virtual learning represents a significant hurdle on the student, the teachers, and the schools.
Even in urban settings, parents, teachers, and school districts face similar issues of time, money, and supportive equipment infrastructure, both in the home and in the school districts.
So, what can you do?
Data Center Infrastructure, Now and for the Future
Data center infrastructure has common concerns that remain the same. The servers, communication nodes and access points still need a dust-free, temperature and humidity-controlled environment.
They need power protection, conditioning, and support, and a place for cable runs. So, how are these needs effecting school districts that are shifting to virtual learning?
Servers, Routers, and Switches
To move data from one place to the other, the servers, routers, and switches are crucial to the process.
Virtual learning and cloud computing call for more powerful hardware. Schools may need to upgrade existing servers with more memory and CPUs. But, if the equipment is already older, then they may need to buy new servers altogether. This can be quite expensive.
Both the software and increased management burden on IT staff can have a heavy price tag for schools with limited revenue.
Environmental Control Systems
With incoming upgrades to school technology equipment, the burden of heat from the equipment will increase.
Virtual learning host servers draw more power, which means routers and switches will run hotter with the increased capacity. This will create hot spots that require additional cooling.
Emergency Power Support
With the transition to virtual learning, localized power outages and weather events pose a threat to school districts now more than ever. In the past, many districts only had one generator at their centralized data center, and that was good enough.
Now, because of virtual learning, many districts are needing to invest in generators for each school to keep their internet available throughout power outages.
For individual families, they will have to decide if the purchase of surge strips and a small UPS for their home are worth the expense to maintain their internet in times of technical difficulties.
Data Center Security and Monitoring
Virtual learning will bear the biggest impact on data center monitoring.
Monitoring will now need to include not just the operation of new equipment, but also remote monitoring of the student’s workstation while connected to the servers.
Traffic flow from the student to the network will need active monitoring for virus, malware and malicious attempts to obtain access to the servers. IT personnel will need the ability to remotely assist students via a “helpdesk.”
Stretching the classroom across many students’ homes simply means more security necessary to keep everyone’s data safe.
Staff as Helpdesk Support
And here’s a real sticking point, does the current staff have the technical ability to run a virtual learning network? Will they need to be trained or will new personnel need to be hired?
If the student’s computer provided by the school district is an asset of the school system, a tracking method will need to be in place to track the equipment’s location. Are there staff members in place to organize and manage the school’s new rental equipment?
Is there staff available to provide helpdesk to assist the students and faculty in understanding and using the virtual learning software? This could result in an additional need for hiring IT personnel.
Empowering the Future of Education with Optimal Tech
Already, much can be read on how school districts are affected by the increased demands on their data centers. None of the school systems were prepared for the rapid changes in education that came about as a direct result of COVID-19. Some schools are fortunate to have the resources to support equipment replacement or upgrades. Many do not.
School systems are scrambling for the financial means to support these needed technology upgrades. However, school revenues are determined via election processes and annual budgets. While a referendum to upgrade technology would seem to be the way to go, there are still many time-consuming hurdles to overcome before school districts have a stable virtual learning network.
Staffing requirements are also facing dramatic change. By embracing virtual learning, fewer teachers and more IT staff are needed. How will these staff changes impact the budget?
At this point in time, the only thing we know for sure is that many schools are not going to start the school year with students on the premises. Some are setting up modified ½ week schedules to allow for social distancing. Others are still determining their educational path.
Only time will tell how and when things will settle down and return to the new normal. The one thing we do know for sure, is that data center design in education and the impact of virtual learning is, and will, continue to undergo dramatic change in the near future.
Contact us today to consult with a professional and begin optimizing your tech for the future of learning.