To be useful, networks need to be accessible to all pupils and teachers, from inside school and from home, says Les Watson
In the early 1990s, an industry-sponsored study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) identified five stages of development in information technology.
The first two, localised and co-ordinated, were really just about users working on their own machine or, at best, co-operating with others. The potential for doing things better, and, more importantly, doing better things, is limited at this level of ICT use.
The higher levels of the MIT model are about IT transforming the organisation by becoming embedded in everyday activities and supporting innovative developments. In my view, these higher levels are not possible unless the organisation is networked, because communication, as well as being the key process in education, is at the heart of innovation.
It was John Seely-Brown, director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre, who said that "all learning starts with conversation". It wasn't until schools and colleges got access to the communication aspect of ICT that we started to see real impact as the technology allowed us to increase the conversations we could have across the network.
Networks have developed exponentially in the past few years. The well-developed network can now provide the information and communications fabric of the school 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year - and should be expected to do so.
Within a school or college, everybody should have access to the network, have a personal identity on it, have their own personal storage space and be able to access personalised services. Outside the school, the network potentially gives a school a presence in the community and in the home of each pupil. The arguments for school IT development should no longer be about hardware, or about pupils per machine, but about access to services for pupils. Staff and pupils should expect to be able to log on to their network space, access their files, information and web services from school or home.
Taking a service perspective provides a sound focus for network development. Students and teachers alike should expect information online, transactions online, assessment online, administration online, resources online, indeed a facsimile of the organisation online.
Giving staff direct access to student data, and personal records enhances their ability to get on with the job, and giving students access to their personal records can ensure that information is kept up to date without forcing it all through the school office administration bottleneck.
Submission of assignments and access to course work can all be enhanced by a well thought out and carefully constructed network.
Putting the network at the heart of the organisation does pose some challenges. A mission-critical network offering all of the above has to be reliable, fast, safe, secure, and easy to manage. Most school networks are rapidly growing up, and spreading out, to live in a hostile real-world internet environment that makes a range of support services vital for success and survival. It's clear that the interface between the school local area network and the internet is a potential vulnerability that needs careful design. The range of possible abuse is scary, so a firewall that provides protection from external hackers is now essential.
Unauthorised users can not only access your network and the information it holds, but can also steal the digital identities of your users. Without attention your network is not secure.
It doesn't stop there. Having a firewall is not enough - it needs to be monitored and tested regularly. Monitoring will tell you whether someone out there is trying to breach the firewall, and an intrusion detection service will tell you how easy it is to do so.
Added to this is the risk posed by the rapid development of wireless networks in schools. We've all heard of the stories about "hot spots" that allow anybody in the street to log on to the nearest wireless networks.
Before going wireless be sure that you're not comprising security.
Network security is the top IT concern of most business organisations and should be at the top of your list too. External access to the network is a requirement for staff and students so security isn't just about closing and locking the door to the network. It is also about making sure it is open to those with a legitimate reason for entry.
You network should be safe for pupils and staff and use of the web should be monitored and managed. In 2002, 14 per cent of email in the US was spam - unsolicited, often offensive messages. Today the rate is as high as 54 per cent in the US. Filtering software is now essential in most organisations.
As the network grows and inevitably slows through increased demand, monitoring the use of bandwidth and applications provides an important source of information to target further investment at those areas that will give the greatest increase in performance.
Software for monitoring network activity and traffic is worth considering.
Also, arranging to cache frequently-used web materials is one way of reducing the demands on bandwidth to the external world and is especially important for schools that don't have broadband connections.
Networks aren't yet a virtual replacement for schools, but they shouldn't be an optional add-on. They are vehicles for doing what schools do: presenting pupils with appropriate educational challenges and enabling them to meet these challenges.
Les Watson is Pro Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University
Networking at BETT
RM Network Management Stand X10, E50, D50 Remote access and security 01235 826000 www.rm.com
Precedence Technologies D10 Network monitoring and security 01223 562500 www.precedence.co.uk
Curve IT L12 Network management 01924 888126 www.curve-education.net
Packet Dynamics Y102 Web content filtering 01506 426976 www.packetdynamics.com
NetSupport Software G70 Network administration and monitoring 01778 382270 www.netsupportsoftware.co.uk
Smoothwall SW120 Internet security 0113 399 3292 www.smoothwall.net
Toshiba Information Systems (UK) V40 Network services and monitoring 01932 841600 www.toshiba.co.uk
Avantis F72 Network cache and content delivery 0870 8734800 www.avantis.co.uk