Increasingly robust broadband and Wi-fi networks in America’s K-12 schools are enabling the expansion of a vast digital ecosystem while also creating new challenges around issues such as cybersecurity, according to a new national survey of district technology leaders.
More than two-thirds of districts are very confident in their networks’ ability to support a digital device for every student, and nearly a quarter of districts now average two devices for each student, according to the latest annual Infrastructure Report of the Consortium for School Networking, a professional association for K-12 technology leaders.
At the same time, however, just 12 percent of the nation’s school districts have a full-time staff person dedicated to network security—a big concern in an era of rising cyberattacks from outside hackers and even schools’ own students.
“One trend is clear: Learning is going digital,” CoSN CEO Keith Krueger said in a statement. “Improved wireless access and broadband connectivity means more schools are better able to meet the modern technology needs of students and teachers.”
Improving School Connectivity
The CoSN survey was conducted in partnership with AASA, the School Superintendents Association; marketing agency MDR; and education-analytics organization Forecast5 Analytics.
The survey, the group’s sixth, includes responses from 386 U.S. K-12 school districts, nearly half of which were suburban. Just 14 percent of responding districts were urban, significantly less than the proportion nationally.
The districts reported expanded internet access and declining bandwidth costs. Ninety-two percent of districts reported meeting the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum connectivity target of 100 megabits per second, per student, and 35 percent of districts said they already meet the commission’s long-term target of 1 Gigabit per second, per student. In addition, three-fourths of districts now report paying less than $5 per mbps for bandwidth, a major drop in cost compared with years past.
Those numbers broadly track with a recent analysis of federal data by the nonprofit broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway, which found that 98 percent of schools were meeting the FCC’s lower connectivity target and that the median per-Mbps cost of school bandwidth had fallen from $22 in 2013 to $3.26 in 2018.
Such strong connectivity has gone hand-in-hand with the expansion of 1-to-1 computing environments, CoSN found. Forty-nine percent of district respondents to the group’s survey reported having one device for every student. Twenty-three percent have two devices for every student, and 38 percent said they expected to be there within three years.
And the nation’s public school systems continue to move to using software and storing data over the internet. Eighty-eight percent of districts use cloud-based software, and 90 percent use the cloud for storage.
“Districts need robust, affordable broadband access to enable digital teaching and learning,” according to the report. “While there are several factors driving broadband demand, the number of student devices continues to be the top driver for three consecutive years.”
Cybersecurity, ‘Homework Gap’ Among Big Challenges
On other issues, though, CoSN found that school districts are lagging behind the needs created by this rapidly expanding digital ecosystem.
More than one-third of districts, for example, don’t provide any support for broadband access outside of school, contributing to an ongoing “homework gap” that can make it difficult for some students to complete online assignments while off-campus. (Fourteen percent, however, reported working with community and business partners to provide such access, and 22 percent loan or give mobile hotspots out to students.)
Districts are also still struggling with interoperability, or the ability to get different digital systems to share information seamlessly and safely. (Education Week explored this issue in-depth in a special report last October, finding that school technology leaders identified budget constraints and a lack of clear technical standards as significant barriers to greater interoperability.)
And cybersecurity—which Education Week will also be tackling in a special report, scheduled for March—is also a big challenge, the CoSN survey found.
The biggest threats that district technology leaders perceive include phishing scams, which 47 percent of respondents identified as a high or medium risk, and ransomware, which 23 percent identified as a high or medium risk.
In response, districts are most likely to take steps around training, including for staff (72 percent) and other “end-users” of school technology (68 percent.)
But the lack of full-time network-security staff is a problem; half of district respondents to the CoSN survey said they share such responsibilities over multiple positions.
The full report is available online here.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.