A summer IT buyer's guide, Part 2: Infrastructure and software for K12 schools

Part 2 of my 8-part IT buyer's guide - More K12 goodness.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

As I wrapped up my K12 hardware recommendations yesterday, I realized that I hadn't covered infrastructure, much of which ends up getting run through E-Rate here in the States. However, I had to lump in two particular networking recommendations (one of which I'll also write about separately - it deserves its own post - and the other is the subject of a book I'm finishing this month) with my software recommendations today.



A couple of years ago, I tried to save some money by connecting two schools with a high-speed wireless bridge. Upgrading the Internet connection at both schools wasn't going to be cheap and it would have been far more cost-effective to just run a big pipe into one school than two smaller pipes into both. They also just happened to be across the street from each other. Phone and power companies start getting grumpy if average citizens string ethernet cables between telephone poles, so wireless seemed like the answer, right?

Wrong. To get something reliable and fast at that time, it was actually more expensive to install the bridge than install cable Internet at both locations. We were looking at 2 years to recoup the investment. Fast forward to today, though, and $160 will get you 2 wireless transceivers running 300mbps full duplex. Ubiquiti Networks airMAX NanoStations are about the size of a consumer wireless access point; can be installed inside or out; have a maximum range of 17 miles with line of site; come with incredible, totally customizable firmware; PoE (injector included); and can act as dedicated bridges, powerful wireless access points, full mesh repeaters, or receivers in next-generation wireless ethernet. How do I know? Because they connect my house and office across the street; I found them when my consumer AP/bridge couldn't hold a decent connection. The NanoStations seem impervious to bad weather, passing trucks, and anything else that might interfere with their operation.

The final piece of infrastructure actually falls somewhere between software and networking hardware. It's Untangle, the open source Internet gateway. Right now, it's load balancing between a satellite and DSL internet connection, filtering content, providing a web cache to help me deal with my 25GB/month satellite data allowance, handling QoS so I can do webcasts without having to call across the street to my house to have my kids get off the Internet, dishing out DHCP and DNS, and much more.

Untangle is largely free software that can be installed on a repurposed machine (it's based on Debian Linux) or you can buy a variety of dedicated appliances from the company. It's a solid enterprise gateway/firewall/content filter/load balancer and scales very well. I don't want to give it all away though. I'll let you know when Cengage publishes the book.


PC software

Not long ago, I gave Adobe's Creative Suite 6 and Creative Cloud offerings glowing reviews. I've been using them continuously since their launch (at least 25% of the work I do involves CS6 and other offerings in the Creative Cloud) and continue to be amazed at their power and, more importantly, at the creativity they enable and inspire (yes, they're aptly named).

Like the workstations I mentioned on Thursday, CS6 isn't software that every student needs. However, with a bit of training, teachers and instructional designers can easily be creating digital content for those 1:1 programs while students can be exploring everything from cutting edge web design (Adobe's Edge Preview HTML5 development tool isn't part of CS6 but is included with Creative Cloud subscriptions, which are by far the most realistic way for schools to obtain Creative Suite software) to brilliant tablet- and desktop-based art applications. The Creative Cloud deserves to find its way into the hands of both teachers and students in comprehensive, voc-tech, and art-oriented magnet and charter schools. I've embedded a brief video review I did for Photoshop CS6 Beta below:

Now for some software that couldn't be any more different from CS6, Lexia reading software was my first introduction to RTI (Response to Intervention). The approach has become fairly commonplace now, involving the presentation of increasingly challenging materials with appropriate scaffolding, assessment, and repetition as needed to build skills. Lexia remains one of the best examples of RTI, provides incredibly granular data to teachers on area where students are struggling, and includes a variety of supplemental activities tied to these particular challenges that teachers can use with students. As with all bits of technology, it's no replacement for good teachers and doesn't obviate the need for better literacy training for teachers either. It does, however, provide an invaluable suite of data analysis and instructional tools that have well-documented impacts on literacy.


Again, tablets aren't necessarily the right tools for students in many settings and the pedagogy has a ways to go to catch up with the technology. That doesn't mean there aren't some outstanding apps emerging that can support teaching and learning in spectacular ways and have been used to great effect in the classroom.

The beauty of the first two is that they're free (and, of course, quite useful). Evernote makes it into my recommendations without hesitation. Many people are already familiar with the note-taking, memory-enhancing, web-clipping, and photo-grabbing software, but no tablet in student backpacks should be without it. It helps that Evernote works across virtually all mobile and desktop platforms, as well.

The second is the Khan Academy app. For now, it's iPad only, but if your school is rolling out iPads, there is no reason for this treasure trove of tutorials and lectures to not be on every student's tablet.

The last is a bit more obscure, but well worth the $11.99 investment. There are literally hundreds of thousands of apps and Human Japanese HD for the iPad is hardly the only app worth using aside from Evernote and Khan Academy. However, it's a great example of the very cool, interactive, tactile ways that well-done educational apps can supplement classroom instruction or allow for independent learning by motivated kids.


Software as a Service (SaaS) has emerged as a critical element of K12 education for a few reasons. It tends to be quite cost effective and easy to manage, regardless of how small a school IT department might be. It's also updated continuously without any real intervention from those same IT staff (or, in many cases, teacher and parent volunteers). With that, a few bits of advice.

1) Skip both Microsoft Office and OpenOffice and go straight for Google Apps and Office 365 for Education. Both are free (although paid services can be layered on), both solve the my-dog-ate-my-homework problem since everything created with these services lives in the cloud (and I know that it will be the rare dog indeed that can eat the entire Internet), and both are more than adequate for producing any sort of written content.

2) Let students work together. This isn't cheating or copping out. It's collaboration and both Office 365 and Google Apps enable collaboration very well. If I was stuck on a desert island with just one cloud-based productivity and collaboration suite, it would be Google Apps, but that's more of a personal bias (although I think it's native collaboration and sharing functionality is one area where it exceeds Microsoft's offering). And if your hardware purchases or 1:1 intentions might include Google Chromebooks or Android tablets, Google Apps for education is the clear choice.

One other honorable mention since K-6 students don't often see much in the way of cloud computing: ePals is not only integrated with Office 365 for Education but remains one of the easiest, safest ways to get kids talking to their peers around the world, as well as collaborating with each other in very non-threatening ways. Content partnerships make this service a slick and genuinely useful introduction to cloud computing for the younger set.

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