A new broadband report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), which represents U.S. state and territorial education technology leaders, encourages education technology leaders and policymakers to continue moving connectivity forward, both inside and outside of school.
This report, called The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning, is a sequel to SETDA's 2012 broadband imperative report that set broadband goals for schools to hit by the 2014-15 and the 2017-18 school years.
That 2012 report spurred the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to modernize the E-rate program that provides school discounts on telecommunications and information services to schools that serve higher percentages of students from low-income families. The FCC also adopted the report's 2017-18 recommendations for schools to have an external Internet connection to the Internet Service Provider of at least 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) for 1,000 users.
Since 2008, schools have expanded high-speed Internet access to 20 million more students, according to a 2015 White House report on elementary and secondary education. While many states have increased connectivity, most of them still have corners of their territory that are more remote, which makes them harder and more expensive to reach with faster fiber networks, said Jeff Mao, senior manager of Common Sense Education, which rates and reviews digital education tools, among other things.
Maine, for instance, has some islands that are only accessible by sea plane or a long boat ride, so microwave towers are the best connectivity access they've been able to get so far. And Utah still has to figure out how to deal with connectivity in the more remote southeastern and eastern Utah.
"Connectivity is better, but by no means is it done," said Mao, who formerly headed up Maine's laptop program.
Now that the 2017-18 dates are looming, the association set new broadband goals for 2020-21 in a new report that SETDA researched with the help of state CIOs, state network managers, E-rate coordinators and digital learning administrators, said SETDA Executive Director Tracy Weeks. The 2016 report, released Thursday, Sept. 8, provides four major recommendations that cover not just school broadband goals, but also state support and Internet access outside of school.
This year, SETDA split out broadband capacity recommendations for external connections to Internet service providers by the size of school districts, which takes into account the real differences among small, medium and large school districts' needs. It also retroactively split out the 2017-18 goals this way.
For example, the report says that small school districts tend to have a higher percentage of their bandwidth usage going to administrative functions including state reporting, student information systems and security. If they meet the current 2017-18 target of at least 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) for each user, they don't always have enough left over for multiple high-bandwidth activities to happen simultaneously. That's why the report recommends increasing bandwidth to a minimum of 4.3 (Mbps) for each user, or at least 300 Mbps for the district.
These minimum recommendations came out of research, expert opinion and data analysis of district networks in eight states.
|District Size||2017-18 Targets||2020-21 Targets|
|Small school district (less than 1,000 students)||At least 1.5 Mbps per user (minimum 100 Mbps for district)||At least 4.3 Mbps per user (minimum 300 Mbps for district)|
|Medium school district (3,000 students)||At least 1 Gbps per 1,000 users||At least 3 Gbps per 1,000 users|
|Large school district (more than 10,000 students)||At least 0.7 Gbps per 1,000 users||At least 2 Gbps per 1,000 users|
The goals for the internal wide area network connections between schools and district offices will stay the same for both targets: at least 10 Gbps per 1,000 users. As cloud computing and virtualization continue to rise in popularity, the report authors foresee that more traffic will go through external connections to Internet service providers rather than putting extra demand on internal wide area networks.
In addition to the broadband targets, the report calls for states to support district efforts with statewide education networks and purchasing consortia. It stressed the importance of making broadband plans not just for administrative functions, but also to support student learning.
"We want that ability to truly think about how we can really leverage digital tools to change the way we teach and learn now and know that the broadband access is going to be there," Weeks said.
For example, Utah has a statewide education network that supports education, libraries and health in most of its territory. That's enabled educators at local schools and other institutions to provide live video calls with International Space Station staff and start robotics academies, among other things.
But along with providing the infrastructure, the state has focused on making sure educators know how to take advantage of it for learning.
"Professional development is so key to ensuring that the educators are prepared and they're able to effectively use this technology," said Jeff Egly, associate director of technical services at the Utah Education Network.
Along with improving connectivity at school, the report recommends figuring out more ways to help students access the Internet elsewhere. This is especially important for students from low-income families that can't afford Internet access; they have to really search for places to do their homework, which increasingly requires them to go online.
Often dubbed the homework gap, this problem has captured the attention of FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has passionately advocated for more access at home. In fact, the Lifeline program that the FCC oversees received an overhaul this year that will help low-income families with students gain access to more affordable Internet.
Several times, she repeated the importance of replicating local and state ideas that are working well and enacting federal policy that will support those efforts. Specifically, Wi-Fi on school buses and in local businesses and libraries all started at the local level and are being adopted nationally.
"Cooperative policy-making between state and federal entities is the way forward," Rosenworcel said. "By working together, we can bridge the homework gap."
The homework gap points to a major equity issue between students who have connectivity and those who don't. Students who can't access the Internet outside of school or really have to work hard to do so are at a disadvantage compared to their more well-off peers.
In the report, co-authors Christine Fox and Rachel Jones suggest that states, schools and districts should work on community partnerships that will help students access the Internet, make sure students know about access options and talk to families about the importance of Internet access.
"Our education system will not have the equality that it needs and deserves until every student has that access at home and at school," said Joseph South, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.
Finally, the report recommends that states provide broadband funding, create state broadband networks, take advantage of group buying power and pass policies that support broadband adoption.
While New Jersey schools make their own decisions and do not have a statewide network, the state education department pulled more than 200 school districts together to drive down broadband pricing. Over the past two years, they reduced the price of Internet access by 74 percent from $26.30 to $6.80 per megabit for 200 schools that participated in the state request for proposal, said Laurence Cocco, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the New Jersey Department of Education.
"That is the power of cooperative purchasing," Cocco said, "and it really did give those schools simply the power to band together and take advantage of their collective buying power."