Toronto schools back BYOD (to class) with $14M Wi-Fi network

Toronto schools back BYOD (to class) with $14M Wi-Fi network

Students are bringing two devices apiece, CTO says

The largest school district in Canada is rolling out a $14 million Wi-Fi network that embraces a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) approach for students.

The Wi-Fi rollout to 562 schools and other buildings in metropolitan Toronto, based primarily on Cisco gear and software, is expected to be complete next year and serve all 246,000 students, plus staff. Many arrive each day with at least two different computing devices each.

Hardware of various shapes and sides -- and running different OSes -- including older Windows laptops as well as newer Android, iOS and Windows tablets and smartphones, routinely comes through school doors,

"Technology plays a very critical role in meeting the needs of today's learners, and BYOD is taking off," Peter Singh, CTO for the Toronto District School Board, said in an interview.

On any given day, the Wi-Fi network, now 80% complete, will handle 100,000 connected users simultaneously, with the biggest load coming from iOS, he said. The district places no limits on connections to streaming video services like Youtube, although it does run software made by Palo Alto Networks to catch pornography.

Toronto's attitude is that allowing students to use their own devices as they want will enhance learning outside the classroom and improve student engagement with lessons. "Today's kindergartner is going to graduate in 2029 and will compete globally and needs to develop 21st Century competencies," Singh said. "Modern pedagogy is interwoven with technology and technology has a huge impact."

When the district purchased 18,000 netbooks for student use three years ago, researchers determined that student engagement with the curriculum increased. "We believe when kids are allowed to use their personal devices that their engagement will grow even as the volume of traffic explodes," Singh said.

The district worked with long-time partner Cisco to find cost savings in designing and building the network. Over several years, Toronto expects to save about $400,000 on the $14.4 million project by relying on new Cisco ONE Foundation for Wireless Software. It combines all of the software licenses needed for the project under a single bill, instead of the older approach of buying elements a la carte.

Cisco Wi-Fi access points, Cisco's Prime management software and its Identity Services Engine (ISE) are all part of the district rollout. Enterprise mobility management software from AirWatch is also being used in partnership with Cisco.

On top of the $14 million Wi-Fi project, the district is halfway finished connecting its buildings with 1Gbps fiber optic cable, a $60 million undertaking.

In moving forward with the project, the district faced a couple of obstacles, Singh said. One was needing to limit the amount of network traffic devoted to the Acceptable User Policy (AUP) required each time a user logged in. Initially, that AUP was overloading the network.

Working with Cisco, the district developed a way to limit the number of times the AUP was flashed on a user's screen by recognizing a repeat user. In addition, the district decided to create a monthly cycle for the AUP, so it wasn't hitting users in the face every time.

Cisco has also been working with the district on the other problem, which sometimes requires users to authenticate themselves when they open a different app. The problem of multiple log-ins is faced by many organizations, and became more pronounced when the district's students started using Chromebooks, he said.

"The experience in the classroom has to be really smooth," he said.

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