Schools’ Broadband Needs Grow as Ed-Tech Evolves

By Katie Ash — September 30, 2008 6 min read

Now that Internet access is pretty much standard in most schools, the next hurdle districts are facing is the speed and capacity of their connections. With the rise in popularity of YouTube and other video-streaming Web resources, many school districts are struggling to provide enough broadband to handle those bandwidth-heavy applications, and experts say the demand will only increase as new technologies are revealed.

Broadband, or high-speed Internet service, determines the capacity of the Internet connection to carry information and the speed at which that information is delivered. The bigger, or wider, the broadband, the more bandwidth the connection has, and the more applications can be run.

Certain online activities, like surfing the Web, take less bandwidth than others, such as streaming music or videos.

“Apart from making sure the walls aren’t peeling, I can’t think of a more pressing infrastructure issue that really does address what can happen in the classroom,” says Christopher R. Brown, a senior vice president at the Upper Saddle River, N.J.-based Pearson Education’s curriculum group, which develops products in a variety of media for preK-12 students. Brown is a founder of the Broadband Knowledge Center, a Web site launched last June by the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN.

“Our children are losing out on instructional learning opportunities ... because [schools] don’t have the bandwidth,” he says.

Many factors contribute to a lack of access to high-speed Internet in schools, including tight budgets, an underestimation of bandwidth needs, and an absence of strong leadership in spearheading the infrastructural changes that often accompany an upgrade to broadband.

One step districts can take to help prepare for greater bandwidth is to determine how much broadband they have now, says Brown, though that may not be a straightforward calculation. To help with such estimations, the U.S. Department of Education has created a bandwidth calculator, located on the School 2.0 Web site.

‘Greater Priority’

Recognizing a lack of information available to school districts about broadband issues, the Washington-based CoSN created the Broadband Knowledge Center to help district-level IT administrators address their growing need for such capacity, says Jeanne Hayes, also a founder of the center. She is the president of the Littleton, Colo.-based Hayes Connection, which conducts research on technology in schools.

In a recent report produced by the Hayes Connection and the Encinitas, Calif.-based Greaves Group, researchers identified the “Internet bandwidth crisis” as one of six key trends for educators, ed-tech leaders, and technology companies to to watch. The study found that although awareness about bandwidth capacity has risen dramatically, 54.2 percent of districts foresee problems getting the money to make the needed changes in broadband access.

And even if funding is available, 36.7 percent of districts anticipate obstacles to actually obtaining the broadband itself, especially in rural areas.

The report also says that to conserve bandwidth, 67 percent of districts are using a restriction policy that bars students and teachers from using certain online applications, such as streaming video.

“We didn’t feel [those restrictions are] a solution,” says Hayes. “It’s not that people don’t know the issue; it’s how do you now change school districts so that the instructional applications get greater priority.”

Mary Ann Wolf, the executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, also recognizes a need for broadband to receive greater priority in schools.

“No industry can really do what they need to do without access to the Internet, and our education system needs that access just as much to really make sure that our students are prepared for the 21st century,” she says.

Not having the capability to easily use Internet resources in the classroom may make teachers less likely to incorporate technology into their lessons, says Wolf.

“If a teacher struggles when he or she is trying to access certain resources, ... that can get in the way,” she says. “And if you start to limit the resources that teachers can use, you can definitely also be limiting the kind of learning that can happen.”

Modernizing the E-Rate

In June, several members of SETDA along with other education technology research groups and school administrators spearheaded a report outlining the state of broadband in schools, suggestions for change, and examples of models that districts, communities, and states have created to help meet schools’ bandwidth needs.

The report calls for action on the state and federal levels to provide guidance and funding for school districts that need technological upgrading. Modernizing the federal E-Rate program, which played a large part in helping districts with aid to obtain basic Internet access, might be a good place to start, Wolf says.

“There are a range of stakeholders involved,” she says. “From leaders at the district and state level, to businesses, to principals and teachers, ... when you look at [what’s worked for school districts], you definitely see that there was that collaboration.”

For example, a Frankfort, Ky.-based nonprofit organization called ConnectKentucky has developed a statewide model for connecting not only schools and universities to high-speed Internet, but also businesses and private homes.

“Libraries are often scrambling to handle the capacity and demand, and they have limited operating hours,” says Rene F. True, the executive director of ConnectKentucky. “So having [a computer with Internet access] in the home is certainly a big advantage.”

To ensure that every student has that resource, the organization launched a No Child Left Offline initiative geared to providing low-income middle school students across the state with Internet-ready computers.

‘A Compelling Case’

If schools are to make major strides toward becoming high-speed 21st-century learning environments, the perception of technology in the classroom has to change from an add-on to a central part of curriculum and instruction, says Tom Rolfes, the education IT manager for the Nebraska Department of Education.

“Internet access and broadband transport are often mistaken for ‘nice to haves’ instead of ‘must haves’ by school administrators,” he says. But although upgrading technology is expensive and time-consuming, “as fiber-optic construction continues to climb each year, [the attitude should be] we can’t afford not to upgrade,” he says.

As a result of state legislative decisions in 2006, school districts and universities in Nebraska are on their way to being interconnected on a statewide network through which all schools will have fiber-optic Internet access. “The entire Network Nebraska statewide upgrade project is self-funded by the local participants, ... with only one-third of the state left to be upgraded,” says Rolfes.

Strong leadership and support from the education community are major parts of the state’s success in upgrading to high-speed Internet, he says.

“In order to make the jump from older infrastructure to modern high-capacity fiber-optic infrastructure, it often requires a bold initiative with a compelling case to be built by a charismatic leader who is willing to ask for increased expenditures in tough economic times,” says Rolfes.

Bijaya Devkota, the chief information officer for the 27,000-student Charles County school district in La Plata, Md., agrees that supportive leadership is an important part of successful broadband implementation.

“One key thing was the leadership we got from the superintendent,” says Devkota. “He really was behind us and made sure we had enough funding and resources,” he says of Charles County Superintendent James E. Richmond.

Over the past six years, the Charles County district has upgraded to fiber-optic Internet access, implemented a voiceover IP system to streamline administrative and instructional activities, and become a completely wireless school district.

Building strategic technology goals into the schools’ overall long-range plans, as well as strong leadership, made a big difference, Devkota says.

“If you don’t have the vision or the leadership,” he says, “you can’t really move ahead.”

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