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Digital learning goal of wireless upgrade at LA schools

The Los Angeles United School District taps Aruba Networks to anchor an upgrade to improve Wi-Fi and Internet connectivity across 750 schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is using Aruba Networks Inc. to underpin the Wi-Fi phase of its...

multimillion-dollar technology upgrade, deploying a package of systems that include Instant access points (APs), ClearPass access management and AirWave network performance software.

LAUSD, the nation's second-largest school district with approximately 650,000 students, is spending $500 million in a multipronged project that includes faster Internet connectivity, a more robust core network and beefed-up Wi-Fi. The strategy, dubbed the Common Core Technology Project (CCTP), aims to provide every K-12 LAUSD student with an electronic device -- from tablets to laptops -- in a bid to promote digital learning. In the end, as administrators, educators and other LAUSD staff are added to the framework, as many as 2 million devices could be riding the network at any given time.

Some 30,000 iPads were distributed to 47 schools as part of the first phase of the district's strategy. Laptops -- including Chromebooks and Windows devices -- are now arriving at Los Angeles high schools, where education policy-makers want students to have access to more versatile computing platforms.

Technology initiative more than a procurement process

Currently, LAUSD has upgraded about half its properties with the new Wi-Fi infrastructure, which is bolstering an existing Cisco foundation. Each classroom is slated to be equipped with at least two APs, with 802.11n throughput -- 600 Mbps -- the minimum standard. Newer APs will also be able to support 802.11ac speeds of up to 1.3 Gbps.

Shahryar Khazei, LAUSD's deputy chief information officer, said CCTP is more than a procurement effort to place a device in the hands of LAUSD students. CCTP required an entire infrastructure for asset management, device reporting, device tracking and network monitoring. And that is where a network management tool, such as Aruba's, could help.

"We look at the upgrade program as three pillars," Khazei said. "One is the infrastructure upgrade with new tools; the second is the acquisition, provisioning and distribution of the devices and the third is the instructional adoption."

LAUSD is using ClearPass and AirWave to oversee the sprawling Wi-Fi architecture. The wireless network upgrades will encompass more than 100,000 APs from both Aruba and Cisco and, ultimately, span nearly 750 school sites. Both management platforms went into production earlier this year.

Performance issues resolved remotely

The Aruba platform was put to the test last spring when students used district-issued iPads to take the statewide competency exam. Khazei identified a number of challenges that occurred at schools, including poorly tuned wireless systems, un-optimized or non-configured components and the improper broadcast of standard SSIDs. With Aruba tools in place, these issues and others were resolved remotely. In the past, Khazei said, the district would not have had this type of visibility without a major increase in deployed staff. 

"Aruba's Instant APs fill in another piece of the puzzle," Khazei said. The APs, which plug into a regular network drop, are designed for rapid provisioning and can be put into operation even before the supporting infrastructure is in place. Prior to the testing, LAUSD installed some 1,100 APs across 500 school sites that had limited or no network connectivity, helping the district notch an online testing completion rate of more than 87%, Khazei said.

Once you have classroom instruction dependent upon technology, it really changes your mode of operation and the support structure.
Shahryar KhazeiLAUSD

ClearPass, meantime, enables LAUSD to oversee both the Aruba and Cisco APs. The district will continue to support both vendors' products, said Jim Del Nostro, then-acting director of IT security. "The control capabilities that ClearPass has have been very beneficial and will permit LAUSD, for example, to ensure each device connecting to the network has appropriate credentials based on district-defined policies."

Khazei said that as LAUSD educators incorporate technology into the classroom, a corresponding shift in the district's IT operational and support models must follow. Technology has become a utility that must be accessible on demand, he added; otherwise, the digital learning and educational process is disrupted. LAUSD's goal is to use the Aruba platform as a first line of defense against system disruptions and other glitches, exploiting the vendor's proactive network monitoring capabilities to enable high availability.

"Once you have classroom instruction dependent upon technology, it really changes your mode of operation and the support structure," he said.

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