Raspberry Pi supplies low-cost computing hardware to educational facilities, like the new Raspberry Pi 4 mini PC

How vendors are helping to build the classroom of the future

If there is one area of society that’s best suited to embracing new technology it’s the younger generation. Aside from the fact that it’s been proven that young people are better at picking up new things like learning new languages or musical instruments than adults, unlike most of you reading this feature, the children of today are growing up with the internet and rapidly-evolving technology stitched into almost every aspect of their lives.

While I can remember a time when the only computer I had access to was a shared machine at primary school, tablets and smartphones are becoming just as commonplace in schools and at home as pen and paper.

Ofcom research from 2017 looked at media use and attitudes from parents and children, finding that half of 5-15s regularly use a smartphone or tablet. And three in ten 5-15s say they regularly use a desktop computer, laptop or netbook.

With technology use so prevalent amongst young people, how has it shaped the classroom in recent years?

“Classrooms use more technology than ever, with interactive flat panel displays (IFPDs) as the focal point of the front of class experience we are increasingly seeing a wide range of products being connected to display and store information,” John-Paul Williams, sales director at networking, memory and data storage manufacturer Ortial, tells PCR.

“Teachers now have access to vast amounts of online content curated by fellow teachers. This is typically downloaded to the teacher’s PC and then displayed to the class on the IFPD and can be shared to student devices, edited and restored to the cloud for future use. To make this a seamless experience we have seen schools investing in SSD and RAM upgrades to maximise the lifetime of existing IT equipment and provide the teachers with the performance they need to keep pace with this convergence between pedagogy and technology.”

Ben Allcock, commercial director for B2B at networking brand TP-Link, agrees that schools are beginning to understand the importance of investing in IT more than ever before.

“Schools are under the same pressures as businesses to provide operational infrastructure 24/7, however, the budgets are very different. Within the last few years, we have seen more schools adopt interactive learning tools and online resources to deliver a dynamic and engaging teaching environment,” explains Allcock.

“However, in order to take full advantage of these resources, schools require high-speed connectivity, not only to facilitate excellent teaching and learning, but also for the school’s day-to- day administration. Delivering seamless connectivity can be challenging for some institutions, which are often made up of multiple buildings spanning across a campus.”

Dr Eben Upton, CEO of mini PC manufacturer Raspberry Pi, points out that there is also a willingness from the teachers themselves to integrate technology into the classroom, and not just through IT classes.

“I think we’re seeing a very welcome willingness to experiment with the use of technology throughout the curriculum. We’ve always been keen to promote technology, and computing in particular, as an enabler, rather than necessarily as an end in itself. Positioning it in this way feels like the route to engaging a greater proportion of students. It’s always exciting for us when an art, geography or English teacher attends a Raspberry Pi teacher training event.”

Current trends

It’s clear that the education sector is aware of the need to embrace technology, not only to keep children interested, but to help experiment with and implement new ways of teaching and learning. There are also many things the technology industry can offer to streamline and improve the workflow of educational facilities and the teachers that work there.

Raspberry Pi has been supplying low-cost computer hardware into the primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors since 2012. “While we initially started out with a focus on home/ hobbyist users and self-directed learning, we’ve come to realise that our products have something to offer in the classroom too. We spend a lot of time polishing the software environment on the device, and the very low price point encourages consequence- free experimentation in a way that a $1000 laptop or $300 Chromebook doesn’t,” Upton tells PCR.

“Schools are investing in SSD and RAM upgrades to maximise the lifetime of existing IT equipment” John-Paul Williams, Ortial

“Our parent organisation, the Raspberry Pi Foundation, is heavily involved in teacher training and in the creation of online teaching and learning materials, and is a partner in the consortium which runs the National Centre for Computing Education.”

Ageing infrastructure is a concern for many schools. Ortial’s Williams outlines how companies like itself can help facilities improve the performance of what they’ve got and help save costs with upgrades.

“The University of Cambridge Network Services manages a complex system throughout the Cambridge collegiate where SFPs are an increasingly large part of the network infrastructure. They required cost effective and high quality SFP transceivers to use in an upgraded Cisco network that could support higher data throughput,” he explains.

“Ortial was able to provide 1GB, 4GB and 10GB SFPs at a fraction of the retail price of the Cisco alternatives, providing a saving of around 90%. Performance tested, simulating different line speeds and protocols, the Ortial SFPs were 100% compatible with the Cisco core system and continued to be supported through the service provision in place. The parts were supplied with a lifetime warranty and full technical support.

“The University of Essex National Data Archive department were updating an ageing infrastructure to allow for improved performance, speed and scalability within the department, however, an all new system is extremely costly. Aware of the cost savings available, they explored the combination of buying refurbished hardware with third party components.”

Ortial was able to offer high performance server memory and enterprise SATA 2.5 SSDs at a fraction of the retail price of branded alternatives. “Sold as part of a new system re-build, the components were fully compatible with both Dell Blades and Servers providing optimal reliability, offered a cost saving of around 40%, and came with a global lifetime (RAM) and 10 year (SSD) warranty for complete piece of mind,” says Williams.

Another example that Ortial gives is how it has helped the IT team at Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate, an independent school for children up to 18 years old, save money on refurbished components.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to see a renaissance in computing as a subject in its own right” Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi

“As part of ICT learning, children at Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate rebuild Intel NUC mini PCs using a combination of refurbished components from old machines, and replacement RAM and SSDs to assemble new machines. The IT team were looking for high quality RAM and SSD that would fit the NUCs but offer a lower price point than Intel parts. Since SSDs and RAM have become commodity items, they favoured a third party supplier that would flash within the system with no conflict,” says Williams.

“Using Ortial SODIMM RAM and SATA M.2 SSDs represented a cost saving of around 10% compared to the Intel alternative. With no compromise on quality or performance, the components were 100% compatible with the Intel NUCs, presented zero conflict, and were easily inserted into the mini computers by children as young as seven years of age. The parts were also supplied with a lifetime warranty (RAM) and 10 year warranty (SSD).”

TP-Link has also worked with a number of facilities to help improve their infrastructure. One example being its work with Dorset-based Lytchett Minster School to provide enhanced wireless connectivity across its 26 acre campus.

“With a series of ageing, independent access points mounted in the school’s corridors with no centralised management, it became clear that the school’s existing wireless network was no longer fit to deliver the access needed to plan and deliver lessons,” says Allcock.

“A TP-Link network survey identified the hardware required and best positions to achieve seamless wireless. The network team rigorously tested two TP-Link EAP225 access points on-site and chose them to provide unified, secure wireless coverage for staff, students and visitors.

“Within just three weeks, TP-Link was able to successfully install 73 access points across the campus. These access points are also PoE-enabled and can be managed centrally, meaning that they can be located in individual classrooms rather than corridors for optimum performance and coverage,” explains Allcock.

“The network is also able to expand to cover outdoor spaces too. A recently-constructed outdoor classroom space and general seating area already has Wi-Fi coverage; the network team has plans to provide further areas, such as its walled garden and sports pitches, with network access.”

Ortial provided the University of Cambridge Network Services with high quality SFP transceivers that were compatible with the Cisco core system

The classroom of the future

So, what will be the defining characteristic of the classrooms of the near future? Ortial’s Williams believes technology will play an important part in the schooling of our children, “with more emphasis than ever being placed on technical and engineering disciplines and significant investment being made by government to raise the profile of these as careers of the future”.

“Future classrooms are being pitched as spaces where students can work collaboratively or individually with the teacher at the heart of the learning experience and not just a lone figure at the front of class,” he says.

“To facilitate this fundamental change in pedagogy, students and teachers are utilising a wider range of technologies than ever before. Recently we have seen VR /AR become a feature in classrooms where students can experience things or visit realistic digital creations of cultures past, for example the pyramids in Egypt, and look around these places in a more engaging way than ever before.

“Schools need to ensure that their networks deliver safe and secure wireless access that facilitates the learning process whilst restricting access to inappropriate content” Ben Allcock, TP-Link

“These technologies rely heavily on fast storage (SSD) and RAM to render these detailed 3D models in real time allowing the student to explore them in ways that were previously impossible. We see design and CAD studios requiring vast amounts of storage for student projects and even an increase in art as more creation is done on powerful workstations or just the scanning of traditional media. We only see the requirements for more storage and faster RAM increasing with more devices (phones and cameras) already recording at 4K and the move towards an 8K future for display and creation on the visible horizon. The future for storage looks bright!”

TP-Link’s Allcock believes bring your own device (BYOD) policies will be focused on more in the near future.

“We are witnessing a trend in which more schools are rolling out BYOD policies for older pupils; recognising that these pupils take more responsibility for their learning and therefore allowing them to bring and connect their own devices to the school’s network. However, in order to realise their BYOD policies, schools need to ensure that their networks deliver safe and secure wireless access that facilitates the learning process whilst restricting access to inappropriate content.”

For Raspberry Pi, Upton believes we will see a “continuation of the realisation that technology is an enabler for most, if not all, subjects”.

“I am hopeful that we will also continue to see a renaissance in computing as a subject in its own right. The coalition government’s curriculum changes, along with the recent investments in teacher training, make me hopeful that this is going to happen.”

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