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Wave of mobile devices stresses school bandwidth

Most school networks are designed to support one computer per five students
Students in the rural Spartanburg School District 3 in Glendale, S.C. benefitted from technology infrastructure upgrades and a new 1-to-1 program.
Students in the rural Spartanburg School District 3 in Glendale, S.C. benefitted from technology infrastructure upgrades and a new 1-to-1 program.

Before purchasing tablets or creating BYOD policies, district leaders need to ensure that outdated school networks can handle the heavy lifting required to provide digital content for all students.

Most school networks are designed to support one computer per five students—the goal set by the U.S. Department of Education in the mid-1990s. But as most know, that is no longer sufficient given the rapid increase in popularity of the 1-to-1 model, says Denise Atkinson-Shorey, senior project director at CoSN.

School networks also were not designed for the video- and audio-rich content or online assessments that all 25 students in an average classroom may use at once today. “That density of users can make a big difference, and is why you see wireless networks slow down,” Atkinson-Shorey says. “It’s a different network design, and it’s more expensive.”

Further exacerbating the need for stronger connectivity are BYOD policies that allow students to bring more than one device to school. “We frequently have 3-to-1, with students bringing a laptop, tablet and smartphone in, and sometimes connecting all three to the network at once,” Atkinson-Shorey says.

Fast Facts

  • More than 70% of children age 8 and under have used a mobile device for some type of media activity in 2013, such as playing games, watching videos, or using apps—an increase from 38% in 2011.
  • The percentage of children who use mobile devices daily has increased from 8% in 2011 to 17% in 2013. And the amount of time children age 8 and under spend using these devices in a typical day has tripled, from five minutes per day in 2011 to 15 minutes in 2013.

Source: “Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013,” Common Sense Media

In Mountain Brook Schools, a suburban district outside of Birmingham, Ala., students can bring their own devices or be provided with school-purchased Chromebooks, iPads, and Windows tablets. The district operates three wireless networks: one for guests, one for mobile devices, and one for hardwired devices. Technology leaders also are adding a new firewall to throttle traffic, especially important during online testing.

“Our theory has been to expose our students to all types of technology, so they are comfortable on every platform,” says Donna Williamson, technology director at Mountain Brook Schools and a member of the CoSN board of directors. “We don’t want to test the device, we want to test what students know.”

After a test of its network in 2010, the district began upgrading its infrastructure and wireless connections. To save money, older equipment was moved to lower-traffic areas in the building. The upgrade will be finished this year, and all classrooms will have access points that will let 25 to 30 students access the internet at once. The entire upgrade cost about $1 million, Williamson says.

Other districts are upgrading infrastructures and implementing 1-to-1 policies to lessen the digital divide. Spartanburg School District 3 in Glendale, S.C., is a rural district of 3,000 students, about 70 percent of which fall below the state poverty index. By the end of the year, all students in grades four through 12 will have Dell Latitude 10 Windows 8 tablets. “We saw the need to put tools in students’ hands that would level the playing field for them to anywhere else in the country,” says Eric Levitt, assistant superintendent for instruction.

Last January, the district upgraded wireless connectivity in all schools to accommodate 1-to-1, giving each classroom an access point. eRate funding covered some of the cost.

Though the district spent two years planning the upgrade, unexpected problems cropped up. Earlier this year in some classrooms, devices were losing the wireless connection and trying to connect to access points in other classrooms. Don Elder, the district director of technology, reduced the area in which devices could find access points.

“You need to plan for the worst case scenario for the devices before they arrive,” Elders says. “You don’t have time to concentrate on infrastructure upgrades when [the tablets] do arrive. You want to focus on the devices themselves and a successful rollout.”

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