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Networking in Schools

Why set up a network in a school?

Assuming your school has already got some computers hanging around the place is there any reason to connect them up to create a network? Obviously it costs a bit and requires expertise so is there any point?

Well yes I think that this is almost always worth doing. For a start you are likely to make back money spent on cabling and a server by sharing hardware, reducing licence costs and saving time. Establishing a good quality network allows you to:

  • Share hardware devices such as printers and scanners
  • Share and control Internet access
  • Share files between staff & students
  • Establish roaming profiles
  • Easily maintain, secure and protect from viruses
  • Manage software licences and updates
  • Run an 'intranet'

Thick or Thin clients

If you're starting from scratch then you might want to consider setting up a Thin Client network using Terminal Services. Although there are some serious disadvantages, it could save you a lot of money and be more reliable... [more]

Sharing Things

The very essence of a network is the ability to share things. The first networks that popped up in classrooms allowed a single printer to serve a whole class of computers. This meant that a lot of money could be saved and better printers procured. It also makes maintenance a lot easier.

More recently schools have been sharing internet connections and admin files, policies, video and music.

What you'll need

To share hardware or files all you need is a peer-to-peer network. You can connect your computers together using the traditional 'ethernet' cables or via wireless. A server is only recommended if you have more than ten computers connected to each other.

Roaming Profiles

A profile is a collection of all a user's preferences across Windows, including most programs. On a standalone (non-networked) computer these are stored on the local hard drive.

A roaming profile consists of pretty much the same data but it's stored on a central server. The roaming profile data is accessed when a client computer 'logs on'. There are many advantages of roaming profiles. Here are some major ones:

Accessibility

All accessibility settings such as the Windows display, keyboard and mouse options and hardware drivers follow a pupil around the school regardless of which computer they log on to.

Customisation

All custom preferences such as Internet Favourites, available programs, desktop background and so on will follow pupils around the school. By separating pupils into groups, roaming profiles allow different programs to be available to different pupils. They also allow those programs to look and act differently.

Documents

Pupils and staff are able to access their documents on any networked computer safe in the knowledge that only permitted people can reach them.

Tracking

Pupils' activities can be tracked to monitor their web, chatroom and software usage.

What you'll need

To enable roaming profiles you really should set up a dedicated server as this is where all the profiles are held and authenticated. You can use any computer as a server running Windows Server (rather than XP) although fast, reliable computers with lots of memory are recommended.

Managing Licences

Software in schools can be a nightmare to manage and if you're not very careful it's easy to break the law by installing the software on too many computers. Installing all your software on all your computers would cost a lot of money, especially in special schools were the spectrum of need can result in a similarly broad range of software. However, having only certain software on certain computers can make things difficult for staff and pupils especially if different computers have different access devices.

A licence manager is a piece of software that you can install on your server. With it installed you can legally allow all your software to be installed on all your networked computers. Here's an example of how it works assuming you have purchased 50 licences of Clicker:

  1. You will need to inform the licence manager that you have 50 licences for Clicker.
  2. The licence manager immediately starts watching all the networked computers.
  3. It will record each 'instance' - launch - of Clicker on the network.
  4. After 50 concurrent instances have been reached it will not allow any more. It is based entirely on a first-come-first-served basis.
  5. Once one user of Clicker has finished and exited the program that licence becomes immediately available elsewhere.

This is a very practical way of ensuring that you are not breaching your licence agreements. It also allows you to monitor the popularity of your programs so you know if you need to buy more licences.

Software licences vary. Some software licences specify that the software can only be installed on a specific number of machines rather than concurrent uses. You may need to check your licence carefully to ensure that you are operating within the legal framework of the licence.

What you'll need

To manage your licences in this fashion you will need some specialist server software such as Ranger External Link .

What's an Intranet?

Technically an Intranet is merely a term used to cover the technologies used across your network. But like the term 'Internet' it has become associated with web pages and this is what people are often referring to when they use the term.

Setting up an internal website that can only be seen and used in-school is relatively easy and you won't need any software other than Windows Server (or a Linux box) to host it.

A school's internal website can provide news on things going on in school, messages from staff, worksheets, tutorials, flash activities, external web links and can even provide an accessible front-end for launching local applications like Word or Clicker. In the past I have made a symbol-supported switch-accessible set of internal web pages to act as an alternative to the Windows Start Menu and Desktop.

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