Impact of COVID on Connectivity Demands in Higher Ed & K-12

Two stories in a stream of cases from a network security expert’s perspective.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jennifer Minella

The first call came in around 2 p.m. on a Thursday. I remember because our team was sitting in an all-hands roadmap update. My cell phone’s caller ID told me it was one of our largest K-12 clients and I knew if they were calling me directly, there must be a problem.

Sure enough, the school’s IT team was in the middle of pure chaos. Students had returned to partial in-person learning, but for some reason even with less than a full load, the infrastructure was being taxed to the point that the internet was unusable. All instruction – even in-person – was being delivered online. To say “instruction was impacted” would be a huge understatement. It had escalated, and now teachers were walking out and leaving the campus in frustration. The school’s IT leadership and teams were the epitome of grace under fire, but knew this had to be resolved – and quickly.

‘The school’s IT leadership and teams were the epitome of grace under fire, but knew this had to be resolved – and quickly.’

The second ‘virtual’ fire alarm came via email, also on a Thursday afternoon, from a university we had not worked with before. They too had students partially return to campus with a limited number of them staying and taking classes from residential halls. Just as with the K-12 school, the university IT team was fielding volumes of complaints as students suddenly found themselves unable to access streaming classes from the ResNet. The pressure was mounting as the university’s technology director sought answers and resolution while the full return to campus date loomed. If the team was unable to resolve the connectivity issues, students would not have access to any of the classes, all of which were being delivered by streaming apps like Zoom.

These are two very real stories in a stream of cases where schools have been unable to deliver quality instruction due to unforeseen technical consequences of the pandemic.

The Show Must Go On

Ultimately, the underlying issues were identified and resolved, but not without a significant amount of time, additional resources and money. Schools, like other organizations, had to make sudden and drastic adjustments to technology in order to meet the demands imposed during COVID. The difference is, unlike some businesses who can pause or make incremental adjustments, with education the show must go on – and it must go on for all, equally. There have been scores of studies over the years noting the negative impact on students when learning is not available, not of high quality or not consistent. Education is at the heart of our communities’ futures.

For those curious about the root causes, the K-12’s issues were resolved through a combination of re-configuration of some gateway appliances performing content filtering and analysis, coupled with an increase in internet bandwidth. A newer next-gen firewall that could handle the larger volume while also preserving and adding security features such as SSL inspection, critical to protecting the school’s network was also deployed.

In the university, the resolution similarly came – after much troubleshooting and testing – with an adjustment to the Wi-Fi controller settings, along with adding APs to resolve coverage issues. Wi-Fi has a way of magnifying smaller issues that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Zoom and other streaming apps have very specific requirements around bandwidth and latency. Wi-Fi is a delicate balance of managing RF, addressing specific requirements based on unique endpoint capabilities such as how they roam, and needs of specific applications, like Zoom. It’s certainly a lesson learned that our current Wi-Fi deployments for yesterday likely won’t service our needs of tomorrow.

In both cases, the schools each had a perfectly reasonable infrastructure for their pre-COVID use cases. However, the sudden shift to streaming apps, even with less students on-campus meant a different load on the infrastructure, and therefore different technical requirements.

The Resilience of People

Is that something they could or should have planned for? In a perfect world – sure. The truth is the luxury of such operational resilience planning is typically reserved for large enterprise organizations with teams dedicated to such tasks. There are entire risk models that address scenarios like acts of nature and pandemics. Unfortunately, schools rarely have access to that level of planning.  

‘Our schools and universities may not have the heft of a Fortune 500 behind them, but they have a lot of heart.’

What we’ve seen through COVID is something inspiring and a bit magical. Our schools and universities may not have the heft of a Fortune 500 behind them, but they have a lot of heart. Sometimes the best resilience we can ask for is the resilience of people – the teachers, faculty and staff, and IT teams that work tirelessly, combining instructional and infrastructure technologies to enable better learning and better futures for students everywhere.

Jennifer Minella is an internationally-recognized authority on network and wireless security architecture, a published author and public speaker. A network architect turned advisory CISO and infosec leader, in the past 15 years she’s worked with hundreds of organizations up to Fortune 50 on strategies ranging from network security to leadership. Helping enterprises achieve their mission through exceptional engineering, Carolina Advanced Digital specializes in networking, wireless, and security – products and customized services for mid-market through enterprise and public sector. Connect with her through LinkedIn.

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