The rise of online education: a learning experience for IT?

There are several emerging considerations impacting their ability to support teachers, staff, and students in the virtual world. 
Keeping online learning rolling
Online is likely to be a continuing part of education delivery

Schools nationwide are planning to reopen cautiously in the third term, and school IT professionals can expect fresh challenges awaiting them in the classroom. Even as movement bans are slowly lifted, some schools are continuing with online lessons – until recently, 95 per cent of NSW’s students were still learning digitally. Educators may have to adapt by implementing blended learning or digital curriculums for lessons, group work, or homework. It falls to school IT professionals to ensure crucial eLearning apps don’t fail, school networks remain stable, and technical issues stay minimal. And while they do this, they should also keep in mind several emerging considerations impacting their ability to support teachers, staff, and students in the virtual world. 

Keeping the network operational
Most school networks are underinvested and untested, and they often lack the bandwidth to cope with sudden influxes of concurrent online teachers and students. To be clear, this is a result of the nature of education budgets – not school IT departments. Teams have moved with unprecedented speed and success, adopting new technologies and services like public clouds. But even with new services to distribute traffic load, most school IT professionals lack the tools and time to diagnose, monitor, and redeploy network resources as effectively as possible. This can severely hamper their capability to scale the network as more users need to access online resources.

One quick and highly effective solution is to implement fitting network monitoring, giving school IT professionals real-time visibility, control, and capacity planning for their network traffic. This comes at a good time, as network performance monitoring tools have evolved from basic hardware and traffic monitors to include software-defined networking, cloud, application traffic mix analysis, and more. These capabilities have expanded IT’s ability to identify and meet rapidly evolving and unanticipated network demands. With enhanced visibility, IT professionals know where to redeploy hardware or when to spin up virtual servers. Obtaining data and insight into their network traffic also allows IT professionals to predict high-load periods (like HSC study time) and proactively allocate capacity.

Ensuring learning never stops
Although it might not seem like it when working in a school district or university NOC, school networks are more similar to their corporate counterparts than you might expect. Both are expansive and highly integrated, and they both deal with numerous users and devices simultaneously. But while corporate IT often has the funds, capacity, and resources to ensure a more deterministic digital domain, school IT professionals may wrangle with slower hardware refresh rates, more heterogenous service ecosystems, limited connectivity, and less predictable user access to educational services throughout the day. Remote learning has only increased the variability of peak demand times and concurrency issues.

It’s a complex situation, and IT professionals are providing stability by controlling the application experience. The adoption of distributed application-focused monitoring tools is increasing educators’ visibility over the performance of more complex eLearning applications, user platforms, and business services. And with real-time, actionable data, they can tailor the network and its interconnected services to identify issues before they interrupt great learning experiences. Often, they’re grouping related apps and services with similar network requirements, burdens, and user groups into 'composite' applications they can monitor holistically. This makes mapping topology and traffic easier, and it reduces troubleshooting time to identify bottlenecks during usage spikes. The result is faster resolution and fewer disrupted lessons and administrative tasks.

Keeping everything safe and secure
Last, of course – and often unfortunately – is security. Education IT professionals spend a considerable amount of time staying ahead of security issues, and this has become even more true as schools increasingly rely on a hybrid mixture of cloud and on-premises infrastructure. While the attack surface area is increasing, educators are gaining expertise and confidence so they can take the best course of action to keep their systems, faculty, and students safe. They’re adopting more mature cybersecurity monitoring tools and bridging gaps between physical infrastructure and digital clouds. Even better, they’re gaining insight to better guide where they focus their future security investments. 

Most importantly, IT professionals should continue to work closely with administration to establish good and effective security policies. The best policies are those they can efficiently and broadly apply across the infrastructure – technical and human. Configuration tools allowing IT to automatically scan and align networks with security policies, manage user access, and provide security information and event management capabilities will prove helpful, especially as IT professionals rapidly configure their networks to accommodate greater traffic loads and continue to adapt to rapidly evolving educational needs. 

But recent advances suggest school IT professionals realise they’re not alone in this struggle. For example, their peers in high-traffic areas like retail malls or even stadiums have dealt the same issues of network capacity, stability, and security for years, and they can offer great guidance. 

Regardless of the duration of this situation, the challenge involved with the emergence of online learning has been on the horizon – or even at hand – for some time. It’s a valuable learning experience for everyone, including IT professionals, administrators, faculty, and students in schools across the country. And that’s OK. Learning has always been our calling.