“Education” for the 2020–2021 school year (PART II)

Distance Learning Technology

The story is part two of my reflections about planning for the summer of 2020. I will focus on the technical considerations we tackled to situate ourselves for the hybrid fall school year’s demands.

As we worked through the summer, the expectations for a remote or hybrid start to the school year were becoming clearer, and we verified that Zoom would still be the platform of choice for the community.

We tested several “appliances” that would tie right into Zoom and give the faculty a familiar interface to work with as they link students’ classrooms with their remote peers. We settled on the Poly Studio X50 system (this includes a control tablet and camera/speaker and microphone bar). Epson Brightlink projectors display the class, students, and work on the screen, and the remote students can see their peers in the room. Faculty connect to the meeting from their device and classroom, and remote students all see the same presented materials. It was not perfect, but provided the best solution for this mixed in-person and remote classroom.

To support the sixty (plus) Zoom Room cameras, we wanted to ensure adequate bandwidth to the internet to guarantee that classes looked and sounded good. Our bandwidth to the internet was 500MBs (up and down) for our primary connection. Using PRTG, I have been monitoring several systems, including our internet pipe. Before installing the Poly Systems, the data did not show upload or download speeds exceeding 350MBs. We wanted to consider the network load of the Zoom Rooms.

Following some discussions, we worked on updating our RCN bandwidth to 2GBs (up and down). The updated speeds give us a lot of room, and with the costs of internet services being so reasonable, the monthly costs were negligible. As of November, the PRTG charts continued to show no greater than 450MBs internet speeds (close to 500MBs). The reports from the classrooms have been good, and no broad or systematic issues.

The increased maximum internet speed required updating our Cisco ASA firewalls to support 1GBs plus internet speeds. All of this work required time, scheduling, adjustments, and some downtime. We coordinated between RCN and our partners to ensure as quick and efficient transition to the increased speeds.

We replaced aging HP network hardware switches for newer Cisco switches providing up to 10GBs fiber between switches and substantially improving the backplane speeds of these current devices.

Infrastructure is critical in assuring the use of the Zoom Room classrooms and the 1000+ devices on the network on a daily basis supporting our faculty, staff, and students.

Infrastructure takeaways. For any deployment at this time, providing the best communication from the endpoints to the internet is critical. Monitor and review the bottlenecks and prepare for the best ways to ensure smooth classroom experiences.

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