Friday, June 22, 2012

The Broadband Imperative - broadband in U.S. schools


The findings of a new U.S. report - The Broadband Imperative:  Recommendations to Address K-12 Educational Infrastructure Needs - from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) are equally as applicable in the UK. The report highlights the increasing importance of broadband for students, teachers and schools:
"It is a simple fact that access to high-speed broadband is now as vital a component of K-12 school infrastructure as electricity, air conditioning and heating...out-of-school access to broadband by students and teachers is now arguably as important to the overall quality of the student learning experience as access at school."
It also warns that current provision is already insufficient for many schools in the U.S.:
"...nearly 80% of respondents reported that their broadband connections were inadequate to meet their current needs. Outside of school, home broadband adoption rates have all but stalled since 2009, levelling off at roughly 65%...If we want our schools to make the most of rich, online curricular resources, online assessment tools, web-based collaboration systems, digital textbooks, and a host of evolving educational technologies that are quickly becoming essential in a globally competitive world, schools will need more bandwidth. If we truly want to ensure that our students become the innovators who will help the U.S. lead the world, it is imperative that we provide robust broadband access not only to every classroom, but also to every students' and teachers' home and wherever we expect learning to take place."
In the light of this, SETDA recommend that the minimum targets below are met between now and the 2017-18 school year:


The report makes reference to the ambitions set out in both the U.S. National Broadband Plan and the U.S. Department of Education's National Educational Technology Plan (NETP):
"Among the (National Broadband) Plan's K-12-related recommendations for minimum broadband standards in schools, it suggests providing schools more flexibility to purchase lower-cost broadband solutions, and greater efforts to make overall broadband-related expenses more cost-efficient within the E-Rate program. The Plan also recommends providing 1Gbps connections to community anchor institutions, such as hospitals, libraries, and schools...Among the recommendations (of the National Educational Technology Plan) is a call for a "comprehensive infrastructure for learning" that includes "broadband access to the Internet and adequate wireless connectivity both in and out of school" for all students and teachers."
It's a shame that there is currently no U.K. equivalent to the National Educational Technology Plan; in addition, while the U.K. Government's strategy paper Britain's Superfast Broadband Future does at least acknowledge the importance of broadband for education, it doesn't contain any specific recommendations or actions in this area. The SETDA report recognises the progress that has been made in U.S. broadband policy, particularly in rural areas, but states there is still much to do:
"While public-private partnerships and federal leadership are helping to draw attention to this issue and to spur the deployment of broadband access to unserved and underserved areas of the country, recent initiatives and programs have in no way resolved the national issue of inadequate and inequitable broadband access for learning in K-12 schools and in homes."
The report also recognises the important aggregation role performed by state broadband networks, similar to the U.K. regional networks that, interconnected by the Janet network, form the National Education Network:
"These networks provide significant advantages for K-12 schools and districts, including the ability to aggregate purchasing power and enable dynamic routing, which reduces the need for expenditures for so-called commodity Internet services (i.e., commercially available connections to the Internet). A state network can save significant time, personnel resources, and costs as each school or district would otherwise have to conduct a competitive procurement process individually. This approach can provide a base level of connectivity service while allowing for the uniform deployment of state sponsored applications and services. State networks also allow members to purchase additional services and to exercise local control of their level of service. Finally, a state network can provide consistent levels of safety and security over the network to comply with federal and state requirements such as content filtering...leadership at the state and district level can enable the management and upgrades needed to achieve adequate bandwidth for K-12 learning environments."
The SETDA report references a study I covered in this previous post:
"In their 2010 teacher survey, PBS and Grunwald Associates found that the percentage of teachers reporting that they stream or download video content in the classroom increased from 55% in 2007 to 76% in 2010. Most of those teachers (78%) also reported bandwidth associated problems when they streamed video - skipping, pausing, or constant buffering - indicating, as the report states, that their "computing devices or technology infrastructure, or both, do not yet have the capacity to handle teachers' increasingly Internet-dependent instructional activity.""
Key to this is not only connection speed but also the number of concurrent users, of which there are more and more as students bring their own devices into school:
"New economic realities are changing policies and attitudes about students bringing their own technology tools to school. The new "Bring Your Own" Device/Technology (BYOD/BYOT) trend is becoming more common in school districts as an increasing number are not only allowing students to bring smart phones and laptops they own to school, but they are encouraging it. These BYOD initiatives permit students to access the school's wireless network, therefore increasing demand."
In closing, the report recommends that state leadership and state broadband networks should continue to play an important role:
"State leadership could entail expanding broadband coverage via the implementation of cost-effective state broadband networks and working in partnership with school districts to leverage federal and public-private partnership programs in support of a state's broadband needs."
Additional resources will be needed if SETDA's aims are to be achieved:
"SETDA recommends the federal government increase funding options to support a) states in implementing and maintaining high-speed broadband, statewide networks, b) districts and schools in increasing bandwidth capacity, c) communities in providing access points at anchor institutions, including but not limited to, libraries and community centers, and d) low-income families' access to broadband at home."

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