State educational technology directors have outlined ambitious targets for increasing school bandwidth capacity in an effort to support digital learning and bridge the technology divide that exists in schools and in students’ homes.
Despite major strides in getting schools connected to broadband internet—in part a legacy of the 2014 overhaul of the federal E-rate program—state ed-tech directors and some federal policymakers are continuing to champion redoubled efforts to provide equitable access to education technology.
A report released this month by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, “The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning,” calls on educators and policymakers to pick up the pace on building their technology infrastructure, specifically emphasizing the importance of finding more effective ways to get students connected outside of school. The goal is to bridge an emerging digital divide known as “the homework gap” that puts students without internet access at home at a particular disadvantage.
SETDA first laid out a bandwidth target in 2012 and called on the Federal Communications Commission to modernize the E-rate program, which provides financial support for schools to build their technology infrastructure. That was a galvanizing moment in the national push for better broadband in schools. That push has seen the delivery in the past few years of high-speed broadband to additional classrooms servicing roughly 20 million students.
“SETDA putting out that goal, and the FCC’s adoption of it, is a huge reason why we’ve made such strides in meeting it,” said Evan Marwell, the CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a broadband-advocacy group. “Districts didn’t know what to aim for.”
Marwell lauded the methodology used to develop the ambitious new targets SETDA has laid out.
“It’s an achievable target,” said Marwell, noting that even without E-rate subsidies, the price of high-speed connections is coming down dramatically in many parts of the country.
States See Progress
INCREASE infrastructure to support student-centered learning. Districts should plan to continuously increase network capacity. According to the report, the average school district should be prepared to accommodate a tripling of its bandwidth demand in the next four years.
DESIGN infrastructure to meet capacity targets. Networks should be designed to support student learning, rather than simply the administrative needs of staff. To this end, statewide broadband initiatives, or district purchasing consortia, can be employed to defray costs.
ENSURE equity of access for all students outside of school. Much like a CoSN report from earlier this year, SETDA is pushing for an “all of the above” approach to bridging the homework gap. Strategies include outreach to low-income families and forging community partnerships to provide students access to the internet when they are out of school.
LEVERAGE state resources to increase broadband access. SETDA is calling on state policymakers to take an active role in increasing broadband access through initiatives such as E-rate funding matches or building state broadband networks.
Source: State Educational Technology Directors Association
John Porter, the chief information officer for the Mississippi education department, is confident his state has a robust plan in place to address expanding bandwidth needs.
In Mississippi, the state buys internet services from AT&T and then distributes access to 112 of the 145 districts that opt into the program. The bulk statewide purchase, a model advocated by SETDA, gives the state better purchasing leverage than the individual districts would otherwise have, said Porter.
The real challenge in Mississippi, he said, is not just in piping large bandwidth to district headquarters, but in ensuring that the districts are then distributing internet effectively through their local area networks.
In some cases, he said, districts may not have the funds to buy new routers or equipment, and local officials may not have the technical expertise to build out efficient WiFi networks. Porter said his office is visiting every district in the state to verify they are using best practices in building out their local networks.
Laurel Ballard, a digital-learning supervisor in Wyoming’s education department, said that a $15.8 million state initiative to increase bandwidth capacity by 4,000 percent, started in 2012, is paying big dividends for students.
With the rise of 1-to-1 computing initiatives, personalized-learning software, and open online educational resources, Ballard is not surprised that SETDA is calling for districts to ramp up bandwidth so quickly. She expects schools’ bandwidth needs to “increase at exponential rates for a while.”
Like Porter in Mississippi, Ballard said Wyoming is well positioned to meet future bandwidth needs, pointing out that the rural state is one of only two nationally that can boast of high-speed connections to 100 percent of its public schools.
For states or districts that are lagging behind, Ballard urges them to make the investment in improving connectivity. She emphasized that a robust internet infrastructure can help defray costs in other areas, such as curriculum development and teacher training. Better internet connections also allow districts to pool resources more efficiently.
Federal Policymakers Weigh In
The SETDA report has also drawn the attention of policymakers at the federal level. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Joseph South, the director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, both spoke at a Capitol Hill event this month marking the SETDA report’s release.
In her remarks, Rosenworcel celebrated the progress the E-rate has made in getting students connected to broadband, before pivoting to her continued focus on the homework gap.
Citing Pew Research Center statistics showing that 5 million households with school-age children lack high-speed broadband, while 7 in 10 teachers assign internet-related homework, Rosenworcel asserted that “we are shortchanging our students and our economy as a whole.”
While arguing that the recent overhaul of the FCC Lifeline program—which subsidizes broadband purchases for low-income families—is a promising start, she called for more federal policies to support local and state-level initiatives that target the homework gap.
For example, Rosenworcel favors loosening rules on how E-rate dollars are spent to support districts looking to outfit their buses with wireless internet modems. In some cases, districts have parked buses near low-income-housing complexes to provide after-school-hours internet access to students.
South focused his remarks on widening the connections that pipe broadband to K-12 school buildings.
He pointed out that major trends toward customizable learning software and cloud-based learning-management systems are putting increasingly heavy demands on school networks.
“We can’t think of this as optional,” said South, referring to students’ need to have access to high-speed internet connections in class.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2016 edition of Education Week as State Ed-Tech Leaders Outline Ambitious Goals