Edtech for Edleaders: Local Area Networks

Local area networks (LAN) entered most educators’ experience in the mid-1990’s when the first servers to be regularly accessed by teachers and students arrived in schools. Early uses of LAN’s in schools included connecting multiple computers to a shared a printer and sharing files using a folder (or directory) on a server which multiple users could access. As educators began to understand the advantages of networks, the LAN’s in buildings became connected in more sophisticated ways. In many school districts, different campuses were connected to a single LAN so teaching resources developed in one school could be used in another, computers in different buildings could be accessed from a single location, and business operations could be consistently and efficiently managed from all sites.

In textbooks that introduce computer networks, readers often find descriptions of metropolitan area networks which are networks that extend across cities. Few network administrators use that term, and school IT managers are likely to hear IT professionals refer to the LAN which connects users access across many campuses. In rural areas, LAN’s can connect schools separated by many miles.

As Internet technologies matured and became more sophisticated, they have been used for many purposes that were once fulfilled with servers located on local area, but LAN’s continue to be an essential aspect of school infrastructure. The easiest way to differentiate the two is to answer the question who has physical access and control over the devices; those that an individual can physically touch in a school building are part of its LAN, otherwise it is likely an Internet resources. (Of course, actually touching a server requires access to the locked wiring closet where they are secured; select IT professionals and school leaders should be the few who have keys to those doors.)

As the boundaries between the Internet and LAN services have blurred, it has become more difficult to predict which services are provided by LAN resources and which are provided by Internet resources. Consider the example of library card catalogs. The long drawers filled with index cards documenting a library’s collection were replaced with databases decades ago. (I used the drawers until I earned my undergraduate degree in 1988. When I returned to the same library two years later when enrolled in a graduate course at the university, the cabinets had all been replaced with computer terminals.) Because the databases containing library catalogs are large and they are accessed frequently, the first digital card catalogs tended to be installed on LAN servers. Requests to view records were sent through circuits to a server located quite close to the client computer from which a library patron requested the record. Technicians and LAN administrators configured and managed the hardware and software that made the card catalog available to library patrons by going to the library and unlocking the closet where the computers were running.

As we will see in the next chapter, card catalogs are now web-based services and schools pay a fee to store their card catalogs on the Internet. Librarians continue to maintain the database storing their collection, but the computers on which the information is stored are maintained by technicians at other sites (sometimes sites far removed from the school). This change has been possible, in-part, because the network connections between the library and Internet are sufficiently robust and reliable that patrons get library information as quickly over the Internet as they did over the LAN previously.