High-Speed Broadband: A Need for Speed

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Slow connectivity is imperilingthe quality of our nation’s K-12 education,while the rest of the world setsthe pace technologically.

LEMON GROVE SCHOOL DISTRICT, a few miles outside San Diego, offers an example of the way things ought to be. The district has used technology and a commitment to 1-to-1 computing to create on its campusesa culture of achievement.

High-Speed BroadbandMost of Lemon Grove’s students would not ordinarily have access to computers, but the city and the district recognized a need, and in response launched Project LemonLink. The heart of the project is the Connected Learning Community, which was achieved through partnerships between business and government. Its unique infrastructure connects the schools and the city via microwave, fiber-optic, and laser technologies.

The network’s architect, Darryl LaGace, also the district’s director of Information Systems, envisioned a connected learning community in which the school district serves as the communication hub for the entire area. LemonLink focuses on high-speed connectivity, equitable and adequate access to resources, development of Web-based instructional tools, and ongoing professional development for teachers. In partnership with business, Lemon Grove has enlisted help from more than a dozen high-profile sponsors, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Pearson Digital Learning, United Streaming, Cisco Systems, and Cox Communications.

“This program has transformed the learning environment,” LaGace says. “Resources are no longer limited to textbooks, paper copies, or the overhead projector; these have been replaced by more relevant ways of delivering instructions— classroom Web sites tailored to students’ needs.” But before popping any champagne bottles to celebrate the seamless connectivity of US schools, understand that Lemon Grove is still a minority, if exemplary, case. Think instead of regular bottlenecks in school districts elsewhere, where a large number of students cannot simultaneously access the Internet without bringing their network to its knees. Then think about the US ranking in per-capita broadband penetration—according to some optimistic reports, 16th in the world. Anecdotally, consider a report from Grunwald Associates, in which high school students answered en masse that their home dial-up connections often seemed faster than their atschool networks.

Certainly, there are bright spots. But while the United States attempts to keep pace in the 21st-century global village, these bright spots are in other corners of the village: Japan, Singapore, and even Great Britain, which some Americaned-tech experts suggest as a model for US education.

“The English government has invested increased funding in educational technology each year for the past seven years, while US state and federal funding has stagnated,” says Bob Pearlman, strategic planning director for the New TechnologyFoundation in Napa,CA. “Most British schools are now way ahead of US schoolsin technology deployment, and many are fully 1-to-1. Innovativepractices are taking hold in many of these schools, especiallythose that have moved toward project-based learning.”

[Getting more bandwidth] eventually comes downto the cost. Who will fund it? Where there istechnology, funding is the major issue.
Abbe Kya, Compton Unified School District

Policy is obviously key to addressing issues surrounding high-speed Internet and broadband access in US schools.“Because so much is predicated on the growth of educationalnetworks,” says John Fleischman, technology director at theSacramento County Office of Education, “decision-makersneed to have an understanding of the value and potential utilityof fast networks. There are so many different levels ofunderstanding—it’s really important for folks engaged indevelopment and build-out of those networks to be able toexplain that value to those less informed, and to show thepotential return on investment.” Translation: Leadership at alllevels needs to get on board.

To make his point, Fleischman cites districts in California that now buy Internet service on a statewide basis. The purchasing is done by the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC) and is passed down over the network so each individual county or school district doesn’t need to pay for Internet service separately. Consider it an example of the benefits of buying in bulk.“It’s one very practical way that you can demonstrate costsavings, and we’ve actually been able to show that cost savingsby purchasing Internet in quantity at the state level,”Fleischman says.

To Fleischman, a robust infrastructure is the foundation for anything a school wants to do that involves connectivity. And with such key district tools as student information systems likely to be Web-based soon, “it’s critical that the robust structures are in place to deliver that student information system from site to site and ultimately into student homes,” he says. “Parents really want that connectivity.” Fleischman adds that connectivity is no less critical to instruction. “The ability to move video and multimedia is really dependent on those fast connections as the whole world moves more in that direction.”

As for right now, Fleischman says, “we’ve gotten bogged down in these bureaucratic policies and structures that have prevented us from moving forward.” What’s most important is for leadership to be able “to articulate and explain that to decision- makers so we can move the policy, legislation, and infrastructures forward so that we can build the networks that are absolutely necessary.”

The Compton Connection

Abbe Kya is Compton Unified School District’s curriculum technology administrator. Recently, his district became the first in California to adopt a new Pearson Scott Foresman California History/Social Science interactive program for middle schools. “It’s just the beginning,” Kya says. “There are so many issues we haven’t worked out. It’s one of those things where we need to sit down and seehow we can implement this program.”

Foremost among those issues is total cost of ownership, along with connectivity. “We don’t have broadband,” Kya says.“Broadband is cable—we have T1 lines. [Slow connectivity] isstill an issue when you have a large number of students trying toaccess the Internet. These days, most of the programs are interactive,involving video, audio, and so on. We’re seeing that the connection becomes slowed. The option is either to increase thebandwidth or maybe have an on-site or district server for thedownloads so that the schools just access this content throughthe server.”

Asked about the urgency of getting higher bandwidth connections for the school, Kya responds: “The urgency? Well, it’s always nice, but eventually it comes down to the cost. Who will fund it? Technology funding is being decreased; the schools pay. Where would they get the funding for something like that? Would it be cheaper just to get servers? Servers have their own costs because you need someone to maintain them. You have to pay a technician; you have to pay maintenance costs. It’s one of those things we have to sit down and study as educators, to see which options work best for us. But it all comes down to funding. Where there is technology, funding is the major issue.”

Other Areas of Application

Stan Silverman, the director of technology-based learning systems at the New York Institute of Technology, manages a project called the Educational Enterprise Zone. EEZ connects K-12 schools to museums and other cultural institutions using videoconferencing and other communication technologies. He also works with K-12 in the application of instructional technology. Silverman believes access to a high-speed network is imperative for schools. He explains that school leaders must agree upon a definition of “acceptable” broadband. “We as an educational community haven’t defined the minimum needed to carry applications like video on demand and videoconferencing,” he says. “There’s an illusion that having a T1 provides the pipes necessary to support these applications; the reality shows that many networks crashed and burned when they connected to video-on-demand services.”

Fat Pipes and Bottlenecks

Two industry authorities weigh in on the issues surrounding high-speed Internet access.

DEB BONANNO AND JAYARAM BALACHANDER are senior VP of Product Design and CTO, respectively, for Pearson School Technology, a division of Pearson Education (www.pearsoned.com).We asked them to comment on some of the more compelling issues facing the educational community as it attempts to improve its Internet connectivity.

Nearly all US schools are now connected to the Internet. Is this cause for celebration?

BONANNO: Connection speeds to the Internet need to be as fast as possible, in my view, and many are not fast enough, which creates a bottleneck. Often, you have 100Mbit [super-fast] school LAN networks that are underserved by T1 and slower connectivity to the Internet. This is an important issue as we move toward 1-to-1 computing, where more students and teachers are accessing big content over the school/district/ county-office Internet connection.

BALACHANDER: It’s great that all schools are connected to the Internet, but the way they are connected is fairly diverse and impacts the enduser experience. As schools increase the speed of that connectivity, they will be able to leverage it with more complex applications. The Internet2 initiative will be the next milestone in delivering rich media content to help more schools and districts employ instruction and tools that facilitate NCLB [No Child Left Behind] requirements.

How is high-speed Internet access helping schools overcome achievement barriers and meet mandates?

BALACHANDER: The Internet2 opens new access to help teachers individualize instruction and drive student performance. Content cache servers and the hybrid models are other options. Districts that have the fat pipes [communication lines that can carry a lot of data] and the speed to drive the content through have a wealth of rich content resources that deliver instructional video and audio, as well as sort student information. And the total cost of ownership will be less.

What are some of the major political, economic, and “people” hurdles that must be overcome before high-speed, high-bandwidth Internet is widespread in districts across the country?

BONANNO: The big publishers are making digital content that requires fat pipes, so the school infrastructures— technological and cultural—now have good reason to accommodate the delivery of instructional material, big content, and digital applications for use in core instruction. Changes to textbook-adoption processes need to happen so that digital content and technology can be a part of the program submission. There are many new services and support requirements when technology is being fully leveraged: data management, network optimization, technical support, technical training, hardware and software maintenance. These are new services that these evolving textbook program capabilities require.

BALACHANDER: As educational publishers and technologists, we are developing and releasing amazing tools and courseware to enhance how teachers teach, the effectiveness of student learning, and the capabilities that drive efficiencies in how districts manage and report student information. We’re working with educational leaders to make all this a reality for districts that have yet to realize the potential of technology.

Are there other key points to make regarding high-speed Internet access in K-12 education?

BONANNO: We can learn a lot from and see our future in how Internet2 is being used in the higher education and research communities. That is big broadband, and they are doing some amazing things.

BALACHANDER: Many states have specific funding sources for hardware, but not for digital instructional content or instructional tools like online formative assessment. For a few of those states that have a model of categorical funding for the purchase of instructional materials, discussions to review new flexibility on the definition of instructional content in the digital age have just begun. These discussions will set the model for other states and districts to emulate or adapt.

Once that minimum is established, the most significant issue will be providing affordable access so all students throughout K-12 education can benefit. “The issue of equity has all too often been reduced to counting the number of black, yellow, or white fingers touching keyboards, while the real measure needs to be counting the access to the emerging applications that require rich media components,” says Silverman.

John Fleischman

"We’ve gotten bogged down in thesebureaucratic policies and
structures that haveprevented us from moving forward so we
can buildthe networks that are absolutely necessary."
John Fleischman, Sacramento County Office of Education

Another, less obvious issue concerns who is creating media for the new broadband applications. “We need to ensure that all sites can be both the receivers of content as well as the producers of content. We have a real opportunity to allow communities to speak with authentic voices. If we’re not careful, we’ll replicate the media-dominated, single-voice system we currently have in place.”

Further, the issue of “’Net neutrality” will grow larger, Silverman says. “Internet providers would like to charge for QOS [quality of service]. This could put a quick halt to the development of new, high-bandwidth applications for schools.” Silverman’s EEZ is one good example of the use of broadband for videoconferencing. Another, while not totally dependent on broadband, is MarcoPolo’s Web-based educational content in New York schools. The MarcoPoloNY Web site receives roughly a million hits a month.

Student Voices

As is true with the Lemon Grove district, students at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, VA, have it all: high-speed broadband connectivity; lots of innovative, technology-integrated programs; and ready access throughout the school. Julie Evans has her ear to what students there are discussing. Evans is the CEO of NetDay, a national ed-tech nonprofit that deals with vital educational issues. Her travels across the country to witness firsthand successful applications of educationtechnology brought her to Rachel Carson.

“We ask the kids, Why do you like using technology for your schoolwork?” she says. “Conventional wisdom says their reply would be, ‘It’s fun.’ But these kids are very sophisticated regarding the pros and cons of utilizing technology. They are well beyond the curve of, ‘Oh, it’s fun to use technology.’ And they aren’t even just saying that they can rely on information off the Internet, that they believe it’s more accurate than information from their teachers or textbooks. They are saying that it makes them more productive. They’ve had deep immersion in these innovative uses of technology, haven’t been stuck by the barrier of slow access, and have had the ubiquitous access. They’ve been able to cross over to looking at the technology not as a whiz-bang thing, as many adults still do, but really just as a productivity tool.”

Laying Down a Future

During the Clinton presidency, Linda Roberts, then the director of the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, had an unambiguous goal: Get 100 percent of schools connected to the Internet now. While this goal has largely been met, the aim of the Bush administration seems just as urgent: Make 1-to-1, ubiquitous high-speed access a reality in all schools—suburban, urban, and rural—now.

Louis Fox, vice provost for Educational Partnerships and Learning Technologies at the University of Washington in Seattle and a leading proponent of high-speed connectivity, spells out that urgency: “Congress, the FCC, leaders from across the ‘dot-edu’ community, and the telecommunications industry must work in concert to put incentives in place to ensure the economic feasibility of fiber to every classroom, museum, science center, and public library across the nation within the next five years.”

While this is clearly a tall order, if it is not met, our students will be left playing a global game of catch-up.

Victor Rivero is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer specializing in education and technology.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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