The need for high-speed internet in schools is growing exponentially. District Administration spoke with four administrators from around the country about what is driving current bandwidth-consumption trends, what impact increased bandwidth has on tight budgets, and what the future of bandwidth looks like for K12 schools.
EDUARDO JAVIER MORENO
What is driving your need for more WAN and internet bandwidth? To what degree have you increased your bandwidth?
JIM RARUS, WAYNE COUNTY RESA: Some of the same things you see on the consumer side are driving the need for increased bandwidth in the schools our agency services. There are more multimedia products in the market that are making their way into schools. Buzzwords like Web 2.0 are being thrown around; there is an expectation that the internet in the schools is robust enough to support all applications. There is a demand to meet, particularly as some of our schools have 1:1 programs. We have been increasing our bandwidth at a rate of about 25 percent each year. For 2012-2013, we will implement AT&T’s DecaMAN® service, which delivers data at up to 10 gigabits-per-second.
SHARON GOLETT, CADDO PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Currently, we are piloting a technology initiative aimed to make internet and online resources an integral part of the instructional process. This will enhance student academic achievement through collaboration and hands-on learning, and achieve readiness for statewide online assessments (PARCC). The pilot includes BYOD for students at our high schools, and has been going well so far. Students, teachers, staff, and administrators often bring in more than one device, which has necessitated more bandwidth and a higher concentration of wireless access points.
MIKE BERG, CENTRAL USD: We are in the process of adopting a 1:1 program in our schools. We believe in technology-assisted instruction because student learning is different today. With that in mind, we are making a wholesale break from hardback textbooks. In two years, we plan to offer only digitally hosted curriculum modules, using standards-based, interrelated lessons to meet students where they are and offer differentiated learning. The interactive feature of digital curriculum indexes is key in achieving this differentiation. To accommodate this standards-based digital content model, a 20MB internet connection is shared district wide.
EDUARDO MORENO, EDINBURG CONSOLIDATED ISD: Increased access to web-based and multimedia resources is driving the need for additional internet bandwidth in our schools and facilities. Our district goal is to provide unlimited bandwidth for web-based access to instructional and administrative resources for our students, teachers, and staff. In 2007, our district was purchasing 50MB of bandwidth from 1 Internet Service Provider. Today we are purchasing 1,000MB from 3 ISP’s, and we expect further expansion. Our district has embraced BYOD, expanded our partnerships with digital textbook companies across all grade levels and subject areas, and implemented 1:1 student tablet device initiatives in focused environments. Every teacher, counselor, social worker, police officer, and administrator has been issued an iPad in addition to their assigned laptop or desktop to provide efficient access to web-based applications, resources, documentation, and productivity tools. We are migrating all of our software application partnerships to the cloud for the added benefits of efficient upgrades, disaster recovery, 24/7 access, and additional levels of security. We expect to complete our district-wide 1:1 wireless access point to classroom initiative in the Fall 2013, so every classroom in our district will have a dedicated wireless access point.
How have upcoming statewide online assessments affected your network planning decisions?
GOLETT: We had been bolstering our internet already to meet the increased demands of IP-based applications and wireless technology. We currently meet the bandwidth requirements for online assessments, but will continue to review and monitor our network, especially as more multimedia are added to the assessments. Our biggest challenge for statewide online assessments is equipping the classrooms and labs with resources needed for our student population.
BERG: Smarter Balanced wasn’t actually the catalyst for increasing our bandwidth, but we do feel we are prepared for the exams. California grants schools a 12-week testing period in order to accommodate the schools that do not have enough devices or robust enough internet to test everyone at the same time. However, we did not feel that was fair to our students, as those who take the test the final week of testing have 11 weeks more of instruction that those who take it the first week. With the strength of our bandwidth, all of our students can take the test at the same time at the end of the testing window, optimizing instructional time before testing, which produces more equitable results.
MORENO: We have been administering online assessments in specific content areas in Texas for some time now, and we administer online exams to approximately 7,000 out of our 33,500 students annually. The majority of the testing in Texas is still paper-based, and we have taken advantage of this transition time by continuing to gain experience with online testing and expanding our network infrastructure. When we first began online testing in 2007, bandwidth was an issue; at times, we had to limit other online activities during testing. Today this is no longer necessary due to our increased bandwidth and network infrastructure upgrades.
In deciding on a network plan, what were key factors in your considerations? What various types of networks did you evaluate?
RARUS: We are in a very urban area and we thought the permit process to get private fiber would be too time consuming and expensive. Private fiber may give you unlimited bandwidth, but schools don’t need that. Paying for what you actually use makes sense. Another plus is that leased Ethernet services are E-Rate eligible. In our service area, the average E-Rate discount is 70 percent, allowing us to get substantial discounts.
GOLETT: Reliability, support and price were the key factors in our decision. We considered Metro Ethernet, private fiber and 3/4G cellular services for our students. Metro Ethernet is the most cost-effective solution which allows us to scale bandwidth as our needs increase.
BERG: We looked at hardwired networks, wireless, 3G and 4G. The ultimate goal was for our students to have full time, anytime, anywhere access. Ultimately, the tablets we selected needed powerful wireless access. We ultimately installed wireless on campuses, and are deploying 1:1 4G devices to provide dual coverage.
MORENO: AT&T’s fiber network is the most expansive and reliable in our geographic area. Our district spans over 940 square miles, and AT&T provides fiber services to almost all of our 50 facilities. We needed a vendor partner with a strong fiber network infrastructure and the resources to support it efficiently. We chose AT&T for stability, support, and cost. We are also purchasing 3G and 4G mobile hotspot devices and data service plans for student checkout and for GPS and wireless access on our bus, police vehicle, and maintenance fleet.
What impact have these network improvements had on your budget? Were there any struggles in justifying the increased bandwidth?
RARUS: As our need for bandwidth has increased, the cost per megabit has decreased. Therefore, our costs are staying the same even though we have a much stronger connection. The real costs in technology tend to be the hardware—replacing batteries in iPads, toner for printers, etc. Telecommunications prices have been refreshing in comparison. E-Rate has also been tremendous in keeping costs down. It’s an effective leveling program for students in high poverty districts.
GOLETT: No, we did not have to put up a fight to maintain our tech budget. Our administration recognizes how important technology is in helping our students and commits to maintaining an adequate budget for technology. The cost of bandwidth has decreased which allowed us to increase our bandwidth without increasing cost.
BERG: Strategically, we had been setting funds aside for several years that could be applied to our future bandwidth costs and the implementation of our 1:1 program. The high number of bandwidth carriers in our area keeps prices competitive and manageable for our budget. We also have 4G LTE from AT&T. When our wireless starts to approach capacity, the data picks up the slack. This helps keep our bandwidth costs down.
MORENO: There have been additional costs associated with the expansion of our network infrastructure and services. Our school board and superintendent are extremely supportive and have high expectations to continue expanding bandwidth access to our students and school community. We have maximized funding opportunities associated with E-Rate, which has helped to moderate costs.
What results have you seen so far with your increased bandwidth?
RARUS: We like to anticipate demand and provide increased bandwidth before it’s actually needed. The only issue we have run into so far is getting our hardware up to the same standard as our internet. Besides that, our users have told us in surveys that they’ve been very pleased with the increased bandwidth. People demand reliability and speed, and we have been able to provide those.
GOLETT: Teachers are using online resources that allow students to continue their learning experience outside the classroom. Students are able to use their mobile devices with classroom curriculum. We provide support and troubleshoot via remote access, which lowers our maintenance and repair costs. Overall, users have more confidence in our network and are having a better experience.
BERG: We can offer more high bandwidth-reliant applications to our students. Additionally, we can conduct virtual professional development instead of requiring teachers to come to a training center.
MORENO: Increased bandwidth has enabled our teachers to utilize more engaging web-based multimedia resources in the classroom, integrating instructional mobile apps and other live streamed web resources in every subject area. We are also implementing online conferencing to make professional development more efficient, and our teachers are able to conduct virtual field trips using videoconferencing. Our increased bandwidth has fostered innovation and creativity at all levels and our educators are developing innovative ways to expand the learning in their classrooms and libraries.
What is your expectation for the growth of WAN and internet bandwidth over the next few years at your district or districts like yours? What does the future look like for you?
RARUS: As our bandwidth need inevitably grows, we will continue to look to AT&T for service. It is great to be in an area with many different options, but AT&T has always been the company we have partnered with because of its stability as a company and the service provided.
GOLETT: We will continue to increase our bandwidth yearly. Hopefully, the cost of bandwidth will continue to decrease and we will be able to afford budget neutral additional bandwidth. We will add a student internet access connection to secure and separate student mobile data from enterprise business and instructional data. This internet connection will also be used to load balance traffic during high peak periods such as statewide online testing. We expect network and bandwidth needs to increase as the curriculum relies more on technology to deliver content and instruction.
BERG: As the prevalence of online testing and the richness of the online content increase, our bandwidth will need to increase dramatically.
MORENO: We are already engaging our hardware and software vendors about their future road maps and innovations, as well as forecasting future technology. We want to be ready with the right hardware, software, electrical infrastructure, and ISP contracts to maximize bandwidth access in all facilities. We are also working to make our campuses more mobile device friendly, by installing charging stations, for example. We expect that mobile devices will continue to drive innovation, and we will need even more bandwidth to support its growth. Our district has embraced bandwidth as an unlimited utility. We would never put a limit on the utilization of water or light for a campus, and with the support of the school board, administration, school community, and strong vendor partners, we have no intentions on placing a limit on bandwidth either.
For more information, please visit http://att.com/k12bandwidth.