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Is this Technically the Best 1:1 Rollout in the World? 20 August, 2009

Posted by paralleldivergence in education, ICT in Education, Internet, Life, My Thoughts, NSW, technology, windows.
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October 20, 2007 - Australian Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd is on the election campaign trail making a promise that made state governments, educational authorities and teachers shudder in their boots. While holding up a laptop which he referred to as “the toolbox of the 21st Century“, he promised to provide a computer to every high school student from grades 9 through 12. Then he became Prime Minister and the pressure was really on, because while he would provide the funding, the Federal Government does not control school education and would not be responsible for implementation - the individuals states would.

KRudd's Toolbox

The original $2.3B promise quickly blew out as states realised that supplying a laptop alone is not going to be enough to deliver the Digital Education Revolution promised.  The state of New South Wales  was steadfast in its push for more funding for its share, to deliver its ambitious interpretation of Kevin Rudd’s revolution - to provide a well-configured  and quality software-laden wireless netbook to each and every year 9 to 12 student in all public high schools. This was a solution unmatched by other states, and with the New South Wales Department of Education and Training (NSWDET) being the single largest educational authority in the southern hemisphere, it was always going to be a massive undertaking.

This represents almost 200,000 students plus all their teachers spread across almost 500 high schools in an area as big as France and Great Britain combined. With each high school ranging in size from less than 50 students to close to 2,000, from large cities and regional centres to outback rural communities where Internet access is scrappy at best – the intent was to provide the same user experience regardless of the situation. Technically, it was a minefield that few would even consider, let alone attempt – but the impetus was still there from the highest office in the land. This was not a time for a half-hearted commitment, there is too much public money at stake.

The planning started well and truly in early 2008 with consultation of all key stakeholders. The first things that became obvious were the numerous and varying-height hurdles that stood in the way – technical, social, cultural, ethical, security, usability, accessibility and all those 19th and 20th Century schooling paradigms that are so steadfastly refusing to allow teaching and learning to change. To address them all, a coordinated approach within the NSWDET was vital – this is not an IT project, it is not a Curriculum project and it is not a Professional Development project. This is revolutionary. It needs clear leadership, direction, focus and commitment - department-wide.

Before this solution can work educationally, it MUST work technically. If it doesn’t work technically, it won’t work at all. It must be fast, reliable and effective. If it can’t do that, teachers will abandon it for their comfortable old shoes in an instant. 1:1 laptop programs are nothing new. Schools and school systems around the world have taken them up since  the late 90s. Few succeed. Fewer are sustainable in the long term. This had to be different or it too would suffer the same fate. It would end up being less a revolution and more an unnecessary, expensive detour.

The Netbook – 2008 was the year of the Netbook. This reasonably-powered sub-notebook brought two important educational aspects to the table – it was small enough for students to carry around and it was affordable. In the end, Lenovo were contracted to supply over 250,000 of their souped-up s10e Ideapads to the NSWDET over four years.

 

The Operating System – When the plan was first mooted, everyone assumed one of the many flavours of Linux would be the chosen OS, probably Ubuntu – but everyone was surprised when NSWDET opted for Microsoft’s newest and at the time incomplete Windows 7 RC for the first netbook rollout to teachers in June 2009. Microsoft was clearly crowing when the decision was made, especially since NSWDET chose to totally bypass its ailing Vista platform, sticking with XP. So happy were Microsoft, they gave every support NSWDET needed to ensure the fledgling OS was ready and capable to take on the Revolution and  provided the final release of Windows 7 to NSWDET more than two months before its worldwide release. In addition to Windows 7, NSW DET has also contracted Microsoft to supply the Office 2007 suite and Student software, while Adobe is supplying its Web Standard package with Dreamweaver, FlashCaptivate, Acrobat, Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements. A slew of other educational freeware apps is also included.

The Wireless – Untethered links are essential to allow students to freely roam around the school, but stay connected. 802.11G simply did not cut it. 54MBit/s (theoretical) per access point was nowhere near the bandwidth needed to cater for class sizes up to 30. Though still not ratified as a standard, 802.11N was selected because of its bandwidth and range. But NSWDET did not skimp on access points – they would install one in every single classroom and learning space throughout each school. Theoretically providing 300Mbit/s each, the intention is to ensure that each netbook in a class is guaranteed a minimum 2MBit/s link to the school’s network. In practise, with 30 students in a class, that limit should be closer to 5.  Of course, these are no ordinary Wireless Access Points – this is a managed wireless solution using an Aruba controller to provide load-balancing, free-roaming, WPA2+PSK security and monitoring of the air. The IBM-supplied Aruba solution offers a central management point that is critical for providing effective and reliable wireless connections to, in many cases, several hundred netbooks simultaneously. Furthermore, this solution is totally scalable – well beyond the needs of any school in NSW.


The ceiling-mounted Aruba 802.11N WAP with Power over Ethernet


The Aruba Wireless Controller and HP Layer 3 Head-end Switch

The Parallel Network – With close to 500 high schools and no previous concrete standard for local area network cabling, NSWDET quickly discovered that existing school networks ranged from simple teacher-strung cables around rooms to high-tech, gigabit-standard structured cabling solutions with all possible permutations in between. Installing a brand new well-designed wireless solution and bolting it onto these existing school networks was never going to be workable nor supportable. The radical decision to leave the existing school network in situ and build the wireless on a parallel network using fibre backbones meant duplicating cabinets in each building, but also meant that the wireless network was predictable, supportable and provided no impact on the school’s existing local area network.


The wireless campus distributor on left, the school’s campus distributor on right. Two separate networks with a single gateway out of the school, all managed by the HP head-end switch on the left.

The Distributed Infrastructure Platform Server – The “DIP” server installed in each high school provides read-only Active-Directory authentication for students and staff as well as DHCP services and local mirrored data storage for each user. NSWDET’s directory contains some 1.5 million user accounts covering school and TAFE students, teachers and State and Regional Office staff. All users have authenticated internet access with varying levels of filters based on grade for students and user level for staff. The 45 terabytes of Internet traffic (as at July 2009) that comes into NSWDET every month and is distributed to close to 3,000 sites across the state, demands reliable network infrastructure. The selected wireless solution complements the existing NSWDET Wide Area Network nicely.


The IBM DIP Server and UPS

Resource Management Utility – How do you manage 250,000 laptops, their serial numbers, who they are allocated to, what happens to them when they are damaged or fail, or when they are stolen or lost? RMU is an amazing product which links the NSWDET active directory with a powerful asset management database and Absolute Software’s Computrace laptop security solution. As soon as a brand new Lenovo is received in a school, RMU knows about it. When it is turned on and configured, RMU automatically updates its status. When a student authenticates for the first time, that laptop becomes theirs – no-one else can authenticate to it and use it and RMU allocates it to them. If the student reports it stolen, the laptop’s status in RMU is changed to lost/stolen and as soon as anyone tries to use it and connect to the internet, Computrace will kick into action, killing it. And Computrace’s self-healing ability will ensure it continues to lock-out the laptop, even if the hard drive is reimaged or even replaced.

Technically, the New South Wales Department of Education and Training’s interpretation of Kevin Rudd’s bold plan is cutting edge. As of this writing, Year 9 students at the first four high schools have received their laptops, along with 30% of all high school teachers in the state. Technically, this solution will work, providing a robust and manageable 1:1 digital learning platform for 200,000 high school students in one single education system. It begs the question – Is this technically the best 1:1 rollout anywhere in the world?  New South Wales Public Education – Take a bow.

Teachers and Studentsthe ball’s in your court. Let’s take this excellent Digital base and mount the best Education Revolution we can!

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Comments»

1. James Rudd - 20 August, 2009

Great article Stu. Quick comment in Wireless you said WPA2+PSK but it is not PreShared Key, it is WPA2 Enterprise

paralleldivergence - 20 August, 2009

Thanks for the clarification James. That actually makes sense. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wi-Fi_Protected_Access

2. Greg S - 20 August, 2009

Wireless client requires WPA2 + AES

3. russell darnley - 20 August, 2009

Yes, I think it is. I’m pleased with the results. Good propagation from the WAP. A bigger footprint than I imagined.

4. paralleldivergence - 20 August, 2009

Thanks Greg. I’m glad you’re liking it at your school Russell. It’s a solution worthy of praise.

5. Chris Betcher - 21 August, 2009

Great article Stu! Thanks for the detailed insight onto the mechanics of the project. It certainly sounds very impressive.

paralleldivergence - 21 August, 2009

Yes, they’re doing some great things in the public system Chris!

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[...] agree with Stu Hasic – DER NSW is an awesome accomplishment thus far and it has only just begun. Post a Comment    (0) [...]

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9. Sushil Arora - 26 August, 2009

Excellant Article Stu! You are absolutely right in saying that “Teachers and Students – the ball’s in your court. Let’s take this excellent Digital base and mount the best Education Revolution we can!”

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