Tag Archives: problem solving

Mitigating Bandwidth Problems on a Budget

Some schools have it good. I toured ASDubai last year and saw their server room, where they aggregated 10 x 100Mbps internet lines to provide wicked fast service for their campus. I’ve heard that ASBombay has phenomenal internet.

The American International School of Bamako – located in the capital of one of the poorest countries in the world – is not quite there. We’ve got 2.5Mbps of bandwidth. But that doesn’t mean I’m not trying to create an environment where teachers can effortlessly integrate technology into learning.

Spoiler alert: we chose pfSense to provide firewall services, WAN aggregation, bandwidth throttling, and captive portal. The price? Gratis.

Since August, I’ve wanted to open up access to our network as much as possible to encourage students to bring their own devices. Our school is still using dedicated computer labs to give students access to technology. While we have a favorable ratio of computers to students, it’s still too hard for teachers to integrate technology into their practice when it’s a pull-out activity that requires transition time to and from the labs. The layout of the labs isn’t conducive to collaborative learning, either. The whole setup implies that technology is something that happens apart from everyday learning, not embedded in it.

At the same time, I faced very real constraints in the level of service I wanted to offer. Our school has 2.5Mbits of available bandwidth that we pay dearly for, and it’s very easy for just two small classes to consume that when doing web searches or any Web 2.0 activity; Google Drive is unusable. So I had to be creative in how I managed our limited resources.

I wanted to:

  • Manage access to the network. I wanted each student to be able to access the network, but not to abuse it by connecting two or more devices. I was concerned that the automatic updates and push notifications of smartphones and tablets would slow down everyone. At the same time, I wanted to prioritize internet access for the finance and front offices and teachers over that for students.
  • Manage bandwidth and enforce fair use policies. I wanted to prioritize Skype traffic (used by our director for interviews) over web browsing, which in turn should receive priority over p2p. I also wanted to make sure that one user couldn’t hog all the bandwidth with large downloads.
  • Improve reliability and speed. With such limited bandwidth I wanted a robust caching solution. We had a bandwidth manager called NetEqualizer that very cleverly penalized the heaviest network users, but it sat between the squid proxy and the network, which meant that even cached downloads were throttled. Reversing the situation would remove the ability to enforce fair use policies, since all web traffic would look like it was coming from the proxy server. Furthermore, I needed to aggregate our two internet connections (a 2Mbit dedicated line and 512Kbps line) and load balance and ensure failover between them.
  • Minimize manual labor for the IT department. The Wifi system in place required us to manually register the MAC addresses of students and parents who wanted to get on the network. Even with a small user base it was cumbersome to register fill out paperwork, record the MAC, and register it with our firewall, and it was a process that wouldn’t scale well.

We looked at three solutions we felt were affordable:

  • IPCop (free)
  • Untangle (~$1500 annually for our user base)
  • pfSense (free)

We decided to implement pfSense since it met nearly all of our requirements. It was also free, compared to a lot of commercial appliances like NetEqualizer, Bluecoat, iBoss, and CyberRoam that run from $5000 to tens of thousands of dollars. Our new setup lets us:

  • Balance traffic between our two connections
  • Prioritize/block internet traffic the way we want, and block inappropriate sites. p2p is severely limited, and I could block it if I wanted
  • Guarantee Skype QoS so that the director can do Skype interviews even at peak hours
  • Throttle web traffic on a per-user basis to ensure fair use in a way that lets casual/research-based web browsing function normally while penalizing heavy downloaders

By December, it will also create an authenticated campus-wide Wifi network that lets students log on with their OpenDirectory credentials (limiting them to one device per person) and lets parents log in using a voucher system – even though our WiFi is basically a consumer-grade network with individually managed access points (although I’m working on fixing that, too).

More detail – almost step-by-step – after the break.

Continue reading Mitigating Bandwidth Problems on a Budget

Learning 2.0 in a Web 1.0 World (or, the “One More Thing” Problem)

I’ve worked at AISB since August. As IT Coordinator my responsibility is to manage all things technical – from making sure that the lab computers have the right software installed to helping teachers create a blended learning classroom to managing the school’s online presence. I’ve definitely done more of the former than the latter. I’ve followed these principles:

  • Before you help teachers use technology, you need to ensure an acceptable level of access.
  • An acceptable level of access means “does not disrupt the normal flow of class.” If it requires more effort than it takes to grab a length of butcher paper from the supply room, then most teachers aren’t going to bother with it because they are educators, not computer mechanics. I’ve found that even having to go to a lab is enough of a disruptive that it makes technology use an exception or disruption, not an integration.
  • The important thing about technology integration is not how impressive it is – it’s how intuitive and seamless it is. Technology should be used because it makes the class a more enriching and efficient learning environment, not because it’s what everyone else is doing or because it lets you do something new. You can be an amazing teacher without using technology, so getting teachers to integrate technology requires that it be obviously – though not necessarily immediately – superior to what they’re doing currently.

Following these principles to create a Learning 2.0 environment has been tough, though, because my international school – and quite a few others in Africa and around the world – are stuck in a Web 1.0 world.

Remember these? My school actually still has some being used as library catalog terminals. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Stopping teachers from giving up

A lot of schools get left behind in the “bleeding edge” discussions about technology integration because they don’t have the resources to leverage the latest tools. Last year I participated in the fantastic COETAIL program and attended a Google Apps summit. I learned about all the cool things you can do when your students have access to a fast internet connection and personal internet-connected device. The problem was that at my last school a significant part of any assignment involving connectivism entailed a great deal of problem solving on my part to give my students access to the tools they needed (though once they had the access, the learning was great). It was the dreaded “one more thing” problem – that using technology added more work to teaching. Here at AISB, I face that problem even more, since our internet connection is glacial, our computers are aging, and our budget is too limited to fix it all.

The danger is that teachers will give up in frustration. I work with an amazing elementary teacher who does e-portfolios with his students on Blogger, makes mind maps using Xmind, has his kids create PSAs using his iPad, and dreams up other deeply enriching activities that embody the collaboratively creative spirit behind technology integration. For the first two months I received regular emails from him complaining about how the internet was too slow to upload his photos or to load the Blogger interface and questioning whether he should continue to integrate technology at all. And it was a fair question, especially when teachers have so many responsibilities competing for their time.

My efforts since August have thus centered around making AISB’s computing resources as reliable, accessible and intuitive as possible on a shoestring budget. The results:

  • Leveraged NetRestore to roll out an imaging workflow for our two computers labs, making it easy for us to roll out more current software packages
  • Deployed Papercut to manage our printing environment, giving us the ability to make printing more accessible for students since we can charge them for B&W and color print jobs
  • Repurposed old PCs into Linux Mint-based Rosetta Stone ESOL workstations.
  • Consolidated our old faculty resource sites into a single portal based out of our SIS, to make it easier for teachers to access curriculum and administrative documents
  • Virtualized our print server, router, and bandwidth management solutions using VMWare ESXi and a disused XServe, thereby making most efficient use of our resources
  • Set up pfSense as a router, web cache, captive portal and traffic shaper, allowing us to let each student have a device on our Wifi network while managing access and enforcing fair use policies
  • Clarified customer service expectations for the IT department (including myself) to make us as responsive as possible
  • Streamlined our progress report workflow to deliver the most essential information while greatly reducing the amount of time, paper, and manual labor required to generate them
  • Set up a scanning workstation in one of the labs
  • Managed the entire MAP testing process
  • Taught three secondary school preps and supervised three other elementary classes while doing all of the above

Communicate your way around problems

Along with working on the school’s infrastructure I realized that good communication and education is just as important as having great resources. For example, I sent out this email to teachers explaining why the internet was so slow. It didn’t fix anything, but it explained a problem that most teachers found baffling and unpredictable. I received numerous appreciative replies. But it was about more than managing expectations, because I want my teachers to set their sights high. Rather, it was about finding ways around problems and making sure teachers could be self sufficient in those solutions. I pointed out a couple of ways that teachers can download YouTube videos, and I’ve since seen a marked rise in their use – rather than letting teachers be deterred by the low bandwidth, I found a way for them to do just what they wanted. I also steered teachers away from from using Gmail’s web interface and got them using Mail.app so that they could read and compose emails even if our line was congested.

Come back down to earth

With a slow pipe, moving services into the cloud is not a good option for us. Sites like Glogster and Prezi are just too slow. Aggressive web caching with squid has helped, but I’ve realized that investing in desktop software and locally hosted services is the way to go. I’ve set up a Friendica instance on site so that teachers can do fake Facebook projects complete with wall posting and comments. I’ve done trials with ToonBook and Comic Life since they run locally. And I’ve looked into making our locally hosted instance of Moodle more robust in its content hosting abilities by experimenting with owncloud. But the nice thing about services like Glogster is that they obviate the need to teach design and how to use a complex program. You could make a digital poster using Indesign or even Pages, but you’d spend a lot of time teaching the program, leaving less for content, creation, or collaboration.

Now that I’ve worked on the issue of access to technology, I can spend the rest of the year helping teachers to use it. And I’m hoping that I can share my experiences at the upcoming Learning2 in Addis conference with other schools trying to do Learning 2.0 in a Web 1.0 world.