Is Your School District’s Network S.M.A.R.T?
Although it is tempting to save money by stretching the lifespan of outdated equipment and systems, doing so can have costly consequences.
Schools that optimize their resources and apply a smart approach to their infrastructure provide students and staff with reliable, secure, and future-ready learning environments.
These five S.M.A.R.T infrastructure strategies help districts meet their academic and operational goals while addressing critical challenges such as staffing shortages, cybersecurity vulnerabilities, and funding limitations:
Education institutions are one of the most popular targets for cyberattacks. There are three primary reasons why:
- Value of student data
- Variability of cybersecurity risk management practices
- Aging infrastructures
Additionally, physical security demands are increasing every year. Schools must have comprehensive emergency response plans in place that include reliable communication channels with internal and external stakeholders.
Segment network traffic
With a network segmentation strategy that gives you east-west visibility and control, vulnerable entry points and guest traffic can be separated from critical network components. Upon detection of a threat, school districts can quickly activate isolation policies to immediately quarantine the affected parts of a network, sparing the rest of the network from the attack.
“Network segmentation can help prevent the spread of ransomware by controlling traffic flows between — and access to — various subnetworks and by restricting adversary lateral movement.”
Campus Safety, September 2022
Leverage built-in features and on-net upgrades to boost broadband security
When evaluating service providers, review the built-in security features, on-net service upgrades, and customer support services they offer. Features such as proactive network monitoring, ongoing security evaluations, remote-triggered DDoS attack traffic blackhole routing, and real-time DNS blacklists can neutralize issues before they impact a district’s network. Even better, these tools run behind the scenes and do not require any involvement from busy IT teams.
Additionally, the invaluable resource of a 24×7 customer support team offers district personnel access to experts at any time, ready to assist whenever challenges arise or if the district experiences turnover in their technology department. This support ensures seamless operations and empowers districts to navigate complex technical issues with confidence.
Shift to unified communications
Unified communications offer school districts a reliable and secure mode of communication in the event of an emergency. Staff members can quickly extend desktop phone capabilities to their smartphones and communicate even when their local Public Switched Telephone Network (PTSN) is congested.
Additionally, moving to a cloud-hosted voice platform eliminates the possibility of damage to on-premises voice servers. Overall, resiliency is much higher with cloud-based phone systems and vendors must meet CPNI, 911, and other regulatory requirements.
Today’s district technology leaders are being asked to do more with less. With so many projects on the docket and limited budgets, upgrading a school district’s infrastructure can take a backseat. However, failing to address an aging infrastructure can have serious ramifications:
- 63% of K-12 school districts lost teachers to other school systems in the past year because they sought a more advanced technology experience.
- In 2019, Amherst College experienced a five day campus-wide network outage due to aging infrastructure and wiring issues. The college’s 20-year-old network had not had a hardware upgrade in 10 years.
Invest in a network that is invested in you
Fast and reliable Internet starts with the network backbone. If an underlying carrier isn’t investing in its infrastructure and making upgrades, there’s not much a school system can do to make its network faster or more reliable. Vetting a service provider’s modernization strategy and growth plan on the front end helps ensure schools have access to scalable, future-ready network services that support their escalating digital demands and goals.
Explore leasing options
Once a perk reserved only for large enterprise organizations, leasing a private fiber network is now an affordable option for school districts. Shared networks are often more expensive, and when your bandwidth needs increase, so does your monthly bill. Instead of buying a set amount of bandwidth, private fiber networks enable you to lock in flat rates over extended periods (10-plus years), providing virtually unlimited bandwidth scalability without price increases.
Additionally, private fiber networks and the equipment and services necessary to light and manage them are all E-rate Category One eligible, enabling K-12 schools to receive significant discounts on a fast, future-ready network that will serve their students for years to come.
Integrate managed services to overcome staffing challenges, mitigate staff burnout, and fill technical gaps
50% of the IT leaders surveyed in CoSN’s annual State of EdTech Leadership report responded that they are lacking the personnel needed to integrate technology into the classroom.
Challenges noted in the survey included the “technology department being overloaded and so many increased job duties over the past 7 years.”
Managed services are an affordable option schools can leverage to shift some of the workload off their IT staff while simultaneously boosting access to industry experts. Instead of spending their time troubleshooting their Wi-Fi or repairing an aging PBX system, managed services allow technology teams to focus on executing their IT strategies and supporting students and staff with their digital learning initiatives.
Plus, in the event of staff turnover, the district has a team of outside experts in place who will keep operations running smoothly behind the scenes.
3. AUDIT AND ASSESS
Busy technology teams are struggling to keep up with the demands and challenges being thrown their way. Many are finding themselves caught in a reactive versus proactive cycle when it comes to infrastructure, and it can be extremely difficult to break that loop.
However, effective and efficient infrastructure modernization requires attaining an awareness and understanding of underlying issues and vulnerabilities. Without that, school districts risk wasting precious time and money on red herrings instead of addressing real problems that pose a significant threat.
Conduct regular cybersecurity reviews and assessments
Cybersecurity is a critical issue that spans beyond technology. In order to strengthen your defenses, you need to identify your vulnerabilities.
Cybersecurity assessments help school districts shore up their cybersecurity posture and gain a better understanding of the steps they need to take to mitigate and prevent cyberattacks.
Get your Wi-Fi checked out by an expert
Though it may seem easy to set up and configure Wi-Fi hardware, building a network without the counsel of expert engineers carries serious risks. A good engineer will assess and help you build a network that gets better results from fewer devices.
Additionally, because effective network design accommodates the unique circumstances of the environment it serves, it is important to be mindful of how that area evolves. What was an effective network last year may now see a decline in performance due to a change in the radio-frequency environment.
Getting a Wi-Fi assessment empowers you to address the issues that are slowing down your network and ensure you are able to effectively support your students and staff.
Assess and streamline your equipment and systems
Over time, a district’s network can often resemble a patchwork quilt. Various hardware and software components are stitched together and patched in an effort to save money. This piecemeal approach may appear cost-effective on the front end, but it can end up costing districts a significant amount of time and money in the long run. Streamlining hardware and system components simplifies maintenance, updates, and troubleshooting. It also improves interoperability and helps ensure each student is receiving equitable access to their digital learning tools, regardless of the school building
Funding is a significant concern for district technology teams. Per CoSN’s 2023 State of IT Leadership Report, long-term planning has become a challenge because IT teams do not know what they will be facing in two or three years.
Apply for discounts on eligible services through the federal E-rate program
The federal E-rate program offers school districts the opportunity to deliver robust, high speed, and reliable connectivity to students and staff. USAC publishes an Eligible Services List for each funding year that provides guidance on the eligibility of products and services under the School and Libraries Program. Only eligible services that will be used for educational purposes can be funded.
Think outside of the box
IT leaders excel at problem-solving, so it is no surprise that CTOs are finding ways to make every dollar count in their schools. From leveraging managed services to address staffing shortages and increase efficiencies to engineering their firewalls to segment network traffic, technology teams are optimizing the resources available to them to build secure and connected learning environments for their students.
Wi-Fi problems account for 64% of all network problems, and a staggering 60% of network professionals spend the equivalent of one day a week doing nothing but Wi-Fi troubleshooting.
With IT teams stretched thin, losing a team member one day a week to Wi-Fi maintenance or other network issues can have a detrimental impact on digital learning environments.
Perform a comprehensive ROI analysis on your infrastructure
Calculating the return on investment of your infrastructure may seem daunting, but it can help school districts identify the true underlying costs associated with maintaining aging systems.
In addition to actual expenditures, districts need to include the amount of time employees spend maintaining and repairing existing infrastructure and convert that to actual dollars. Furthermore, when evaluating repair versus replacement, it is important to look beyond the cost of the hardware and consider the full scope of the project and the number of hours it will require from your team to complete.
Assess and streamline your equipment and systems
Over time, a district’s network can often resemble a patchwork quilt. Various hardware and software components are stitched together and patched in an effort to save money. This piecemeal approach may appear cost-effective on the front end, but it can end up costing districts a significant amount of time and money in the long run.
Streamlining hardware and system components simplifies maintenance, updates, and troubleshooting. It also improves interoperability and helps ensure each student is receiving equitable access to their digital learning tools, regardless of the school building
Maconaquah School District Embraced Cloud-Based Firewalls for a Smarter Future
Chris Percival, the Director of Technology at Maconaquah School Corporation, shared his ROI analysis strategies in his article, “4 Key Ways School Can Strengthen and Advance Cybersecurity Strategies”
“One shift we have made is leveraging hosted and/or managed services to fill staffing gaps and eliminate expensive and unpredictable capital expenses. For example, we previously had an on-prem firewall solution that was managed by a former staff member. When they left, I made the decision to switch to ENA by Zayo’s hosted firewall so that I did not have to spend the time and money hiring and training a new employee who would likely leave after six months for a higher paying job in the private sector.
To attain leadership buy-in for this new direction, I broke down the monthly costs of buying a new on-prem firewall solution and included estimated hiring, training, and repair fees over the lifecycle of the equipment. This enabled district leaders to see a side-by-side cost comparison of using a hosted, cloud-based firewall service versus an on-prem solution. Once they saw those numbers and realized the hosting service also included access t
Survey your staff
It can be hard to track the daily activities of team members, especially when everybody has so much on their plates. Gaining insight into how much time is actually being spent troubleshooting can help districts identify challenges that need to be addressed. Not only will this information help districts become more efficient, it will also likely boost the morale of frustrated IT staff members who are tired of fixing broken systems or equipment when they have a million other projects to complete.
Identify efficiencies that work for your district
Every school system is unique. There is no exact formula for modernizing a school district’s infrastructure. It is important to look at options such as automation, AI, managed services, professional services, and more, and determine how these tools and services could integrate into your technology plan to make your team more efficient.
Moreover, as demands on technology staff increase and budgets get tighter, identifying ways to relieve some of the burden on the IT team will be critical to retaining talented team members.
Infrastructure modernization can be intimidating, but it is necessary to ensure district operations and instruction remain running smoothly. Learning disruptions can have severe consequences for a school system and the greater community.
Prioritizing infrastructure and implementing strategies that optimize the funding and resources available to school districts empowers technology teams to build future-ready, reliable, and secure digital ecosystems their students can rely on to produce positive outcomes.
ENA by Zayo's education-centric solutions can help modernize your school district's infrastructure
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