A Digital Transformation That Puts Students First
The Institute of Education has been a leading second level school in Ireland for more than 50 years and provides a student-centric approach to education. Founded by Raymond Kearns in 1969, The Institute of Education initially provided private tuition in maths to both teachers and Leaving Certificate students. Having quickly earned a positive reputation for our efficacy and successes, The Institute of Education expanded its offering to include many other Leaving Certificate subjects.
Today, The Institute of Education is one of Ireland’s largest private schools, offering a full education for students from 4th to 6th year. Our state-of-the-art campus is located in the heart of Dublin’s Southside Georgian district and features more than 40 dedicated teaching spaces within its 100,000 square feet area. We continually update and add to our programme offering and have recently added Mandarin Chinese and Leaving Certificate Physical Education to the list of 27 subjects currently offered in the school.
Excellence is in the DNA of the Institute and we never compromise on the quality of our education. We are defined by our high standards and our students are always central to any decisions we make around our programme delivery. Students’ needs change, and our school must react to those changes. In 2020, the global pandemic forced us to rethink how we delivered our classes.
Like other educators around the world, we had to ensure a continuous stream of digital learning for students during lockdown. But since our entire focus up to that point was on in-person learning, we had never before needed our network to handle a ton of traffic or support many devices. To keep up with our students’ needs during the pandemic, The Institute of Education had to undergo a significant technological transformation.
A Short-Term Solution and a Long-Term Plan
We responded quickly to the immediate situation before us: Within two weeks of lockdown, we adopted Microsoft Teams to deliver classes for the rest of the school year. We were—and remain—proud that our students never missed a class. As the pandemic continued, however, we realized we had to consider a more long-term solution.
We knew there were better teaching solutions out there. We also began to imagine what the learning experience could look like beyond that first year. How could we better support students into the next academic year if it wasn't possible for them to return to the classroom? How could we provide the best support possible to our students in an external setting?
We had previously planned to upgrade our IT infrastructure, but those plans were still in the early stages, and would not have been adequate to ensure a fully digital educational experience. But with the uncertainty piling up, we need to invest in our future.
Finding Partners to Help Us Along
Our IT team began by researching the available products to help with our digital transformation. It became very clear that in order to deliver this project on time and on budget we would need a reliable partner. As it stood, our classroom spaces were not equipped with cameras or microphones, and we had a small IT department that couldn’t undertake everything themselves. We required a partner who was knowledgeable about our industry, could find solutions within our budget, and could help us with deployment. PlanNet21 fit the bill perfectly.
On the solution side, our directors knew of Cisco through their involvement with the Entrepreneur of the Year Award. We knew Cisco had a reputation for best-in-class hardware and software, and together with PlanNet21, we embarked on a collaborative process to discover the pieces that would best fit into our puzzle.
One of the biggest concerns at the beginning of the process was the security of our students, staff, and network. We also needed a network that could handle simultaneous live streaming of classes. We knew we needed to upgrade the core wired network, so we selected Catalyst 9200 and Catalyst 9500 switches. Our devices all connect wirelessly, so we thought it would be a good idea to implement Cisco Wi-Fi 6 with Catalyst 9115 access points. And we needed security for the network and devices, including robust access controls, so we chose Cisco Secure Endpoint, Cisco Identity Services Engine (ISE), and Cisco Firepower 2130 Security Appliance. This was a significant package that put security and stability front and centre.
We installed 80 microphones and 40 HD cameras, one in each learning space, so we could live stream classes once the new academic year began. Cisco supplied all of the equipment and PlanNet 21 managed the configuration. The network design was collaborative; we articulated our technical requirements in terms of manageability, and PlanNet21 provided the solutions to meet the need. The collapsed timelines on the project meant there was minimal time for testing prior to the go live date, so we had a short period of hyper-care support agreed in advance, where PlanNet21 dealt with any issues which arose. We expanded our IT team to support this network going forward. Given the rushed timeline and the amount of work involved in deployment, I can honestly say we wouldn’t have achieved this transformation without PlanNet21.
Once the implementation was complete, we had to ensure our teachers were comfortable with the new tools before engaging with the students. Even though our teachers operated under great uncertainty, they were incredibly supportive and eager throughout training. August 2020 was busy but it was also a very exciting time. We were lucky that our staff values student success as much as the administration does, so there was an incredible buy-in from all of our teachers, and they adopted and adapted to training very quickly.
Throughout the summer, we held our regular admissions events such as virtual open evenings with prospective students and parents. We shared the exciting news of our plans to live stream and record all classes from September 2020, and the students and their parents were just as excited as we were. Everyone was eager because this was groundbreaking in terms of education in Ireland. Over the summer, we heard about other schools working feverishly to establish their own solutions to minimize disruption to their students’ education. We were lucky that we adapted when we did to make our inevitable investment so much sooner.
The Return to “School”
When the students came back to school in the first week of September everything was in place. In an incredibly short time, we had built a new network, which created a remote learning environment so students could attend class both on-site or remotely. Thanks to the cameras in each learning space, all students could stream live classes from those rooms.
On the very first day of class, everything ran exactly as planned. Now, there can be 1,250 active users on our new, high-capacity network. We have 900 hours of classes being streamed and recorded each week, which is a huge achievement. At the end of our first academic year following the deployment of our new infrastructure, we have had zero outages. We’ve received great value from the stability of the solution, which was deployed under pressure with minimal time for testing.
Cisco met our security requirements, and our upgraded Wi-Fi meant that these new devices connected securely and no one was distracted by connectivity issues. Our network environment is a 10x upgrade on our network environment at the beginning of 2020. Looking back at the changes, it was quite staggering how much changed in just a year.
Expected Benefits and Pleasant Surprises
Our new network and digital environment have offered everything that we had planned, as well as several benefits that we had not expected. We have subsequently evolved this digital approach into our standard educational offering.
Now, no one ever has to miss a class if they are unable to be present on-site at that time. This change gives our students the option to attend classes remotely if they don’t feel comfortable or safe returning to school. And even if they continue attending remotely, they’ll have the same experience as in-person learners. We feel confident that everyone receives a consistent, educational experience.
As an in-person learning institution, we could never have fully anticipated the benefits of remote learning. One of the most pleasant surprises was that students used the technology to further their own education. They can now go back and rewatch their classes, giving them a way of refreshing their knowledge, and answering any questions they may have missed.
As a school that is perpetually looking for ways to improve the experience, we benchmark ourselves against the best in the world, and understand we always need to find ways to improve. It is an interesting and exciting journey as we continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of our students well into the future.
Not only was our school better prepared for the unpredictability of the 2020/2021 academic year, but we proved that we were adaptable. We’ve grown and been successful because we can meet the needs and expectations of modern students and parents. Whether the students chose to study from home or return to the classroom, The Institute of Education is enabled and empowered to deliver more effective and secure student-driven solutions.