As education improvements and innovations are developed and take root in schools, they change how students learn, and the spaces in which the learning occurs have to evolve to accommodate those innovations more effectively.
That’s what schools have experienced with technology. To give students better access to information delivered by computers, schools have had to provide more space in classrooms. To provide the electricity needed to run the machines that could deliver the information, education institutions had to boost the power supply to classrooms.
When the Internet offered the promise of access to materials beyond what was available on just one computer hard drive, schools acquired the wiring and network infrastructure to make those connections possible. To enable these technological devices to operate properly and still provide students with a comfortable learning environment, schools have had to reconfigure their climate-control systems to account for the heat generated by the machines.
Compared with the classrooms of two decades ago, the integration of technology into the instructional day has come a long way. But, when one looks at the unrelenting emergence in recent years of new gadgets and tools with the potential to enhance student learning, the most appropriate slogan for educational technology is “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“It is no exaggeration to characterize the increasing presence of a range of computing devices in K-12 environments as an ‘explosion,’” says a report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), “The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K-12 Education Infrastructure Needs.”
Those include faster and more powerful laptop computers, tablet devices such as iPads, Kindles and Nooks, and smartphones, many of which students already own and can be incorporated into Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program that many schools have initiated.
The proliferation of technology has prompted many educators to envision what they could accomplish in a learning environment in which every student had a device that could connect to the resources of the Internet.
But the proliferation of technology also has raised the fears of administrators and policymakers who worry that too many schools will not have the resources and infrastructure to deliver on the promises of connected classrooms and 1-to-1 student-to-computer ratios. Schools will be more dependent on broadband connections as increasing numbers of students use online digital textbooks instead of hard copy versions. In addition, student assessment systems developed as part of the Common Core education standards will be delivered on line beginning in 2014-15 and “will almost certainly increase bandwidth traffic for all K-12 districts,” SETDA says.
The result: What was ample capacity just a few years ago will be insufficient to meet the demands of a school district in 2014 and beyond.
“Too often the speeds of (school) connections fall short of what’s appropriate for learning in a time where technology pervades all aspects of society,” The SETDA report says. “... 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 ... schools will need more bandwidth.”
Getting all of the nation’s schools to that level of connectivity will be daunting.
For instance, in Florida, the state’s education department said last year that it would need hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve its goal of a 1-to-1 student-to-computer ratio, high-speed wireless connectivity at all schools, and broadband Internet access on all computers at all schools.
In advocating for Florida’s Public Schools Technology Modernization Initiative, state officials said that 1,616 schools in the state had no wireless infrastructure, and 263 schools had no broadband access. In addition, to be prepared to administer the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments that are required for the Common Core standards, the state must make sure that each school has an adequate number of computers and sufficient infrastructure to handle the bandwidth that the assessments will require.
That means Florida schools would need an additional 912,746 computer devices for students in grades three to 11 to meet the PARCC requirements and achieve a 1-to-1 student-computer ratio.
The state education department estimates that leasing computer devices for those students would cost $155 million. Providing a high-capacity wireless infrastructure to all schools would cost Florida nearly $239 million; boosting broadband coverage to meet anticipated needs would cost another $151 million.
Avoiding a divide
Unless a concerted nationwide effort is made to boost broadband Internet access in schools, the disparity in resources between haves and have-nots will spread, SETDA argues.
“A school’s bandwidth increasingly determines which online content, applications, and functionality students and educators will be able to use effectively in the classroom, and without an upgrade, many will be left behind,” the report says.
SETDA cautions that no one-size-fits-all model exists for school bandwidth needs—systems will vary based on the number online at any given time, the types of content being accessed, and other district functions.
“In addition to student use, schools must consider bandwidth for data systems operations, administration and reporting, other back-office operations needs, and teacher professional development opportunities,” the report says.
As a general recommendation, SETDA calls schools by 2014-15 to have a minimum broadband capacity of 100 Mbps (megabits per second) per 1,000 students and staff, and wide area network connections among schools in the district of at least 1 Gbps (gigabit per second) per 1,000 students and staff.
“Unless we swiftly and systematically move to address the impending bandwidth dearth facing schools nationwide, we will find it to be the limiting factor in school reform and improvement,” SETDA says.
The group also calls for the federal government, states and school districts take the initiative to ensure that broadband connections are available away from school facilities—at students’ homes as well as libraries and community centers.
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.