Virtual WLAN puts an end to the traditional classroom

New Line Learning Academies’ Federation is using WLAN virtualisation with shared pools of virtual access points that dole out bandwidth on demand and enable hundreds of students and teachers to simultaneously share learning materials on one stable network.

The New Line Learning Academies’ Federation is using a method of WLAN virtualisation with shared pools of virtual WLAN access points that enable hundreds of students and teachers at  two newly built schools to simultaneously share learning materials in an innovative form of open classroom.

Each of the Maidstone, Kent, academies for pupils aged 11-18 was rebuilt at a cost of around £62 million, and the principals were keen to use wireless technology to underpin "wide open learning plazas."

“We have totally moved away from traditional classrooms where we teach thirty kids with one teacher to areas called learning plazas,” said Charles Earlham, network manager at New Line.

Learning plazas will have up to 150 students, each with their own laptop, and about four staff members. The colleges found that their existing wireless networks began to fail at the point where around 20 users tried to log on simultaneously.

“A couple of years ago we set up the first learning plaza and we had HP access points in there, which were unmanaged, and they didn’t really work if I am honest. It was very slow and kept dropping off,” said Earlham.

WLAN virtualization changes the story

New Line Learning deployed a virtual wireless LAN from Meru Networks that monitors and manages network traffic. The system pools all wireless resources from different access points into one virtual cell that is partitioned to match device and application requirements.

Each client sees a single virtual port that travels with it throughout the network. As a device moves, the system determines the best physical access point to serve the device and migrates the wireless device to the appropriate access point. Each cell requires only one radio channel. Meanwhile, other channels are free for expansion, letting the network scale to the highest densities.

The academies were able to experiment with the networking technology in the old buildings before making purchasing decisions for the new facilities. New Line Academy, which has around 600 pupils, moved into its new buildings in September 2010, while Cornwallis Academy, with 1630 pupils, will move into its buildings in September 2011.

“We looked at two or three different vendors. We were in a good situation because we had this learning plaza in the old school, which we could afford to put in four or five access points to test before we went out and bought 90 for the new build,” said Earlham.

“We were trying to do something different with education; no one was really doing what we were doing. A lot of schools had laptops in the classroom, but when you try and put 120 in one space, it is quite an achievement.”

The other vendors in the running were Aruba and Ruckus. “Ruckus was certainly a lot cheaper than Meru, but because of the word of mouth that we had heard, it was worth giving Meru that chance,” said Earlham.

So far, the implementation has been largely invisible to end users.

“We have gone into a new school where within the learning plaza there is a lot of technology; the wireless just works and there is no involvement from the teachers. Teachers are very quick to complain if something doesn’t work. When we didn’t get much feedback, we knew it was a good system and it was working well,” Earlham said.

His team is now testing wireless connections to each plaza’s nine-screen video wall so that students can use software on their laptops to broadcast their screens. “This is something we have been working towards for a long time, and to do it wirelessly is quite an achievement for us.”

--Tracey Caldwell is a professional freelance business technology writer.

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