A Sheridan school teacher in front of Junior High School students using laptops.

3 Ways to Successfully Upgrade your Internal Network

With 10 schools and over 3,000 students, Ryan Schasteen, technology director of Sheridan County School District 2 was focused on making sure that “anything a teacher could accomplish in a classroom was trustworthy and reliable.” With solid Internet connectivity and infrastructure already in place, Ryan concentrated on building a stronger internal network using E-rate Category 2 funds. He wanted to make sure students and teachers had access everywhere they went, and wireless connections as an inhibitor to online state testing, 1:1 student: device program, Chromebooks, was problematic. “That was our focus, a robust and reliable network so we could be free to focus on the teaching and learning of it [technology]. We didn’t want the focus at all to be on not having sufficient bandwidth,” stated Ryan. Here are three things that made for a successful internal network upgrade for Sheridan.

Plan ahead

As Sheridan schools considered implementing 1:1 student device programs back in 2011-2012, it was important to invest in putting fiber between all the buildings. Overbuilding his network prepared him for the future when trying to upgrade internal network equipment. “From the beginning, we looked at overbuilding the network so that when it [1:1] happened, we didn’t have to scramble to make up the difference,” he said.

Another way to plan ahead is taking into consideration the needs of teachers, time, money and resources it would take to implement new internal equipment. “I think we’ve developed a reputation for the past 11 years that we don’t ask teachers for something unless we know it’s going to be valuable. It’s a challenge of not only keeping everything up to date but also predicting the future – making sure that the decisions that we make today will sustain.”

As a technology director, you have expectations from teachers and staff to keep everything up and running smoothly, so there’s a performance expectation of sorts. It was very important to Ryan to be thoughtful in the type of technology that would sustain over time and “not run off to the next greatest fad.” It’s important to revisit the tools you currently have and how it can work differently to meet your needs. Ryan also suggests looking at the tools you have from a fresh perspective and ask yourself, what can you do with these tools in your classroom that would be good for student engagement?

“I love enabling people to do what they want to do and what they want to accomplish; I enjoy that I can provide solutions to make things happen,” says Ryan.

Make wireless the investment

A few years ago, Sheridan experienced many challenges with its network that caused concern. Ryan noticed that a lack of enough access points caused lots of log in troubles for teachers. He was finding that technology was taking time away from teachers to interact with their students because they had to deal with constant problems. “It just seemed like a bit of a chore for the teachers to say ‘get out your iPads and Chromebooks,'” stated Ryan, “wireless was the investment we needed to make first.”

Since Ryan had overbuilt the district’s network, adding and replacing new devices was simple and reduced bottlenecks. “Two things that we talked about with wireless is making sure you can get access wherever you are and that there is enough access for all of the devices at any time – that was our standard of success.” To achieve that success, Ryan set out to apply for E-rate Category 2 funds. Knowing that the funding was only available until 2019, he made sure to take advantage of this opportunity.

“I never want the technology in school to be a limiting factor for anything. There’s so much that teachers and students can take advantage of – tools out there, content out there – ways out there to enhance learning and I want that to always be available. I don’t want technology to ever be limiting for what my students want to do. It hurts my heart to say, “you want to do that, but technology won’t allow it.”

Stay in the know

Upgrading your network doesn’t come easy unless you have the right people on your side. “We can talk to the central office and say this is what we’d want to be able to do and they say if we get the principals on board, we’re all in — principals were the key stakeholders,” says Ryan. Making the argument that policymakers see as important and worth the money to invest in equipment was a challenge, but understanding their pain points and how to alleviate them was key.

It’s hard work upgrading your network, but always worth it to have a sustainable, reliable equipment in the end. Ryan suggests spending a lot of time in your own professional development by going to conferences and state meetings. Call up your state department of education and ask what money is available, and never lose sight of the power of a support group. Sheridan School District was a part of the National Governors Association (NGA), and it allowed the “time to get together and think about things and the future and what we could do – it was very beneficial,” says Ryan, “with technology, you feel isolated with what you do and your own team – I enjoy hearing from other districts experiencing the same problems.”

See more stories of successful school district upgrades on our blog.