Changing the Network to Connect the Learner Anywhere, Anytime

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A decade ago, IT leaders in education designed networks, computer labs and technology with a one-computer-for-every-five-students ratio. Today, school districts are faced with the phenomenal ratios of three devices for every one student when they implement a bring your own device (BYOD) initiative. This is a whopping 1,500 percent increase, stretching bandwidth, security, devices, and mobile access when 80 percent of districts report flat or declining budgets.

Let’s explore why there is rapid change in the education network arena, and then explore some strategies schools use to address this daunting challenge.

Economically disadvantaged families increasingly lack the ability to use technology to seek jobs and to access online government resources, and their children are unable to connect to formal education opportunities. In the United States, there are nearly 27 million families without a home computer or connection to the internet, according to a 2011 report from the International Telecommunications Union.

Although the number of computing devices in schools is growing, technology is not ubiquitous in most classrooms. MDR Research reports only 13 percent of U.S. classrooms have a one-device-per-child technology environment. Also, if you are from a U.S. family of modest income ($30,000 or less annually), you are 50 percent less likely to have broadband access at home compared to families with annual incomes exceeding $75,000.

However, a Pew Research study indicates that mobile phones help bridge the digital divide by providing internet access to less-privileged students. In fact, 21 percent who do not go online [how, via computer?] say they have internet access on their mobile device, while 41 percent from households earning less than $30,000 annually say they go online with their cell phone. Pew further finds that 95 percent of all teens access the internet.

Clearly students are finding ways to connect to information in creative and non-traditional ways. This creates a diverse network of devices for schools to address in their learning environments.

This year, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and Qualcomm, a global technology company, have come together to help schools understand the evolving needs of education networks through Designing Education Networks (DEN). DEN is a project funded by Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach initiative that aims to provide guidance and resources for school district technology decision makers who are developing wireless infrastructure to support a one-device-per student 24/7 learning environment.

When DEN’s resources become available in June, they will ensure cost-saving decisions and encourage efficiencies that enable long-term value for a school’s technology investment—whether that district is large or small, urban or rural. To systemically address all parts of a school district network, we have divided DEN into four phases:

1) Gateway to the district
2) The district WAN
3) The school LAN
4) Off-campus, which will look at each phase and all the considerations that should be addressed with vendor-neutral resources, case studies, and best practices.

The fastest-growing and least-understood phase of education networks is off-campus access. School districts beginning to address this connection must consider a myriad of topics, including sharing student data, age appropriate resources, cyber security and student privacy.

There are several ways to address off-campus access:

  • Local businesses, such as McDonald’s, which provides a hot spot for students to complete homework at more than 11,500 restaurants
  • Community Anchors Institutions, such as the partnership between Nashville Schools and the Nashville Public Library, called Limitless Libraries, which fosters resource sharing between the two institutions and improves student access to learning materials
  • Telecommunications providers, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which provides access and devices to low-income students and families
  • Schools, such as Irving ISD in Texas, which provides wireless hotspots to families throughout their community to help students connect anytime, anywhere

Denver Public Schools and The Civic Canopy, a nonprofit organization that brings companies together to improve neighborhoods, are partnering to improve off-campus access. Encouraging after-school activities with students, parents, the community, and the schools, the partnership emphasizes both educational and technical topics, including sharing student and family data and educational and community resources, as well as addressing the safety, security, and privacy of students. Curtis Lee, technical director of The Civic Canopy, said:

“The educational network is quickly merging with the community network in a number of ways … Visually, it feels like a variety of network circles having various sizes and security profiles that overlap in different ways depending on the need of the user(s). … It will almost be entirely mobile for a large swath of the populace, so you better design it that way from the start.”

The current digitally-based culture connects students and educators across a diverse network 24/7. As such, district IT leaders must leverage resources such as DEN that deliver the backend technology infrastructure and best practices to meet the changing K12 educational demands for today and tomorrow.

Denise Atkinson-Shorey is the President / Chief Executive Officer of e-Luminosity and a Senior Consultant for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

For more information about Designing Education Networks (DEN) go to Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach.