ABC and 123 now on IP

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB)’s high speed network is allowing students to go beyond their classrooms to link with other students all over the world.

The bandwidth in the schools is at 100Mbps, allowing full multimedia including voice, video and data according to Frank Coppinger, general manager of operations for TDSB. He said some schools with technology-related courses have been making full use of the network’s capabilities. For example, in December a videoconference was set up between schools in Toronto and Switzerland, chaired by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.

The WAN is shared with and maintained by Bell Nexxia, with LANs set up within the schools themselves. Nexxia’s connections between buildings is providing the school board with 155Mbps of bandwidth over fiber.

“When the feed comes into the school it goes to a hub room or telecommunications closet which has a number of switches in it. Then that switch takes the messages and they go on a LAN to each of the desktop PCs within the school. And we use both IBM and Macintosh (computers), so it’s dual platform,” said Coppinger.

“Students have gone to it like a duck to water.” He said one of the challenges as a result is to get teachers fully trained on the equipment as well.

Sandra Mackay, an account consultant with Bell Nexxia in Toronto, said it was important to make sure the network wouldn’t be in the way of teaching.

“They envisioned that the technology should become a transparent, interactive and integral part of the learning process for the students and the staff,” said Mackay.

The long-term maintenance of the network is Bell’s biggest challenge, she said.

“Traditionally Bell has had products that we offer customers. In this particular case we were looking at a full solution for the customer, end to end. They wanted to standardize on the technology, but they’re educators, they didn’t want the responsibility of managing the network and maintaining it and installing it.”

The network isn’t reserved solely for the classroom, though – it’s also connecting the entire administration. TDSB is the result of a recent amalgamation of school boards, and Coppinger said administrative staff was cut by 50 per cent in the amalgamation.

“We have a school board now that’s three times bigger than anything else in Canada, and in order for the administrative staff to be cost effective, they need to be able to communicate very easily‚Ķ I’d hate to think of managing this system without this network.”

Coppinger said plans for the future include teaching classes remotely across multiple schools and allowing students to access the network from home. The multiple-firewall network does not allow access from home yet, but the board has set up a Web site students can access over their home Internet connections that features some class material and a knowledge base.

“Ultimately the intent is to have the students to be interconnected from home and have the community and parents connected,” said Coppinger.

TDSB is poised to connect the second portion of its 600 schools to the board’s new high-speed IP network in early 2000.

“The schools in the northern region have been up and running for over a year, but the south region of Toronto will be hooked up in the next few weeks,” said Coppinger.

“The 100 schools in the south will be connected soon. There are some schools that only have ISDN access in the east and the west, and it’ll probably take us another twelve months to have them all connected to the high speed network.”