Keith Newman talks to the principal and students at Karamu High School about the lightspeed liberties enabled by their new ultrafast broadband network.

When Karamu High School principal, Martin O’Grady, talks about his students getting As, he most likely means “access, access and access”; although with turbo-charged broadband now in place across the campus, he’s confident that’ll extend to improved grades as well.

The fact many students often had better internet connection speeds at home had been an embarrassment for a school with the motto “knowledge is strength” until earlier this year. “Kids are generally interested in learning and we were slowing them down — as teachers we were supposed to be leading the way,” says O’Grady.

The new network makes last year’s copper-line based ADSL, which maxed out at around 5Mbit/sec downstream and 500kbit/sec upstream, seem lame. When multiple users were online at the same time the on-screen egg timer made regular appearances as downloads stuttered, re-buffered or froze.

Clearly a new era has begun: ultra-fast cabled broadband and its wireless equivalent now promote innovation rather than stifling it, with ample connectivity for whatever electronic device students use to enhance their learning.

It enables a network of data projectors in every classroom and a brand new iMax suite in the media studies lab where students’ assignments include producing their own movie clips. “It used to be a struggle but now they’re just flying,” says O’Grady.

And it’s not just technology-focused classes that are benefiting, there’s potential for change in the way students learn across most subjects, whether it’s mathematics, science, English or health and physical education.

Converging of forces

Principal O’Grady says a fortuitous “converging of forces” has enabled the network to be put to maximum use, promoting greater connectivity among staff and students. At the time the $8 million project to rebuild 75% of the school was getting underway, funding from the Ministry of Education was approved for a three-year ICT professional development programme for staff.

Having the new infrastructure in place means teachers are now able to put into practice new ways of doing things; far less time is spent on the nuts and bolts and more on the learning process.

While everyone’s still coming to terms with the possibilities, O’Grady is confident this is where education technology must go. “I really feel we’re going in the right direction with fibre all the way. Some schools have used their SNUP (School Network Upgrade Project) funding to put in Cat 6 copper wire, but I believe a fibre optic backbone should be a regional strategy for our schools.”

Sensibly the school used trenches dug for water and sewage to lay ducts for fibre installed by Chorus, which now spans out to all the teaching areas from the new hi-tech server room with its gigabit speed switches and hubs. This ultra-fast broadband capacity is then distributed to desktops and mobile devices across the campus by a leading edge Ruckus wireless network, at speeds up to 100Mb. Each wireless router, geared to seek out the best signal strength, connects up to 30 computers and devices, removing the need for a spaghetti jumble of cabling.

Less time fixing things

School IT manager, Matthew Strickland, had just completed loading software and configuring the last of the 128 Hewlett Packard netbooks and 60 Lenova thin-screen terminals when BayBuzz dropped by.

The netbooks, available to students for class-work needs, are stripped down devices with no disk drives; running Microsoft Office, video-editing tools and other applications directly from the school’s internal internet.

Strickland says the wireless network made his life a lot easier. “There are no cables, and the network is more robust and reliable; I spend a lot less time fixing things and can be more focused with my time.”

The network set up is something you’d expect to see in a hi-tech business, with its rack of state-of-the art servers and switches, back-up and management technology. The cable is future-proofed; an $8000 switch upgrade could boost backbone capacity to 10Gbit/s.

Both Principal O’Grady and technology manager Strickland have their fingers crossed that all the ground landscaping and new technology will be up and running smoothly by Labour weekend when the school celebrates its golden jubilee.

Digital kids whizzing

In the digital technologies lab, encompassing computing, information management, ICT and electronics – a converted dark room in the belly of the school – students were working on a range of projects from layout and design to digital photography.

Thomas Kendall is greatly relieved he can now seamlessly access YouTube tutorial videos for advanced lessons on Photoshop and listen to music, using headphones of course, while he’s soaking up all that knowledge.

Thomas, who’s a year 13 student, is considered the school’s best photographer and has plans to continue his media studies at university with the advertising industry as a possible goal. “When the network would slow down you couldn’t get any work done; now you don’t have any worries, I get stuff done much more quickly — it doesn’t feel like there are limits anymore.”

Just along the bench from him are Tagon Duncan and her classmate who are working with InDesign and other Abode media applications as part of an assignment. Tagon has industrial design in mind and is greatly relieved things now work as they were designed to.

Principal O’Grady sees the lightspeed communications as removing obstacles so students can “charge on ahead” in a range of areas from design, technology, performing and visual arts to the use of video in teaching.

“For health and physical education or even science they might use their smartphone to film a golf swing or a science experiment and analyse this later.” Previously they would have to book out a camera from the IT department.
O’Grady says faster access has created new ways for students to demonstrate what they know, and capture their work in e-portfolios. “Under the old system, if you could write something you were considered intelligent; if you couldn’t, then in the eyes of the examination board, you knew nothing.”

He says that’s neither right nor fair. “A lot of kids have skills and abilities but writing may not be their strength area.”

Smartphones as standard

While cellphones are still banned in some schools, smartphones that can surf the internet and run education enhancing apps are being encouraged at Karamu High School. In fact, O’Grady is convinced they’re the way of the future, particularly as they become more affordable.

“Students are already using laptops, iPads, and other devices and while initially we may have to provide some of this, the next wave is smart phones. Teachers will walk into the class and say, ‘alright students get your phones out and look up this information’.”

Acessing data through the school’s Ultranet, which links to internet-based resources, does not incur any data costs, although outside the school gate it’s back on the public network with its associated costs.

Protocols that allow both Android and iPhone devices to operate together and issues around security and responsible use are still being worked through. In the meantime it’s been open slather; some students have been found accessing the network after school hours.

However, the school’s IT management system can monitor who’s using what, when and where and filters are in place to block objectionable material and other content that is unlikely to be related to school work, such as Facebook.

“The school day belongs to us and it is not acceptable to waste time or misuse the technology. If you do, there will be consequences,” says O’Grady sounding for a moment more like the school principals I knew as a youngster.

“Changing people’s behaviour takes a while and we have to learn the bounds of acceptability in the digital world. New legislation relating to social media is planned and once case law is established it will be clear to students what is and is not acceptable,” says O’Grady.

Karamu has already had a couple of visits from other schools in the region who’re considering doing something similar but O’Grady’s not making any great claims about leading the way “while we’re still deep in it.”

And he’s quick to point out that teachers will continue leading the learning in this new ‘blended’ environment where the best of old and new come together. “We’ve not gone crazy like some schools around the world where the teacher disappears behind a glass wall and only interacts through video-conferencing or messaging.”

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