Middle Schools : Strike Up the Bandwidth


Are districts suitably prepared for the ever-increasing need for faster connectivity in our schools?

Middle Schools : Strike Up the BandwidthASKED WHY SHE INTENDS TO increase her district'snetwork bandwidth fivefold this summer-- from 20megabits to 100 megabits-- Jennifer Bergland, executive directorof technology information for Texas' Bryan IndependentSchool District (BISD), responds with a line that could havecome from perhaps any of today's technology administrators:"Because we are teaching the right way to keep our kids engaged."

Engagement is crucial for 21st-century students, and nowhere more so than at the middle school level. Middle school is a time of transitions for students-- from a single, self-contained classroom with one teacher who knows every student well, to six or even eight classrooms in which teachers see more than 100 students every day; from a pedagogy that is small, grouporiented, and involves students in active learning, to a stand-anddeliver method that requires students to sit and listen. And these changes occur as even more profound ones are taking place within a middle schooler's body and mind.

What happens if students are not engaged? They get bored and drop out. A lot drop out. According to "The Silent Epidemic", a 2006 report by Civic Enterprises in association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates and commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (www.gates foundation.com), "Each year, almost one third of all public high school students-- and nearly one half of all blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans-- fail to graduate from public high school with their class. Many of these students abandon school with less than two years to go to complete their high school education."

Hard at work keeping students engaged is Mark McCall, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at BISD's Stephen F. Austin Middle School. McCall is what his principal, Patti Moore, terms a trailblazer. Four years ago, he brought the school's network to its knees by having all his students go to this new site called Moodle that he found on the internet. Today, Moodle's course management system is embedded in the educational lexicon and is a vital tool for many educators. McCall and innovative teachers like him are driving the expansion of Stephen F. Austin's network.

McCall keeps his students interested by using the technology available to them, including the laptop each of them has by way of Texas' Technology Immersion Project, a statewide initiative funded by Title II-D of the No Child Left Behind Act. McCall has his students work in groups so they can pick each other up, and he assigns them worthwhile projects that he lets them know he will put to use in his classroom in subsequent years, so the students make an extra effort to have the information accurate and the production professional.

For example, in his Texas History class, his students learn about the Texas Revolution through group multimedia projects. As one activity, each group writes an imaginary diary that chronicles the decisions a key member of the revolution made during a crucial time of the war. From their diary, the students make a series of podcasts about this key figure in their state's history. In addition, the student groups create a wiki relating to one of the revolution's famous battles, and a music video of a song from that era.

All this takes bandwidth-- but are technology administrators planning for enough of it? No, according to Tom Greaves and Jeanne Hayes, authors of "America's Digital Schools 2008", a survey on the key tech trends facing education today. The report says that districts now average 6.48 kilobits per second per student, a figure expected to grow over the next three years to 15.73 kbps per student, and over the next five years to 33.82 kbps per student. The ADS team believes these numbers, though much higher than those forecast in their previous 2006 report, "are still underestimated, and that in five years schools will need 45 kbps per student."

The reason for the increase is just as Bergland says: the need to teach in ways that keep students engaged, which means incorporating laptops, web-based activities and content, and active, project-based learning.

According to "ADS 2008," this type of classroom environment is growing. Twenty-seven percent of the survey's respondents-- superintendents, curriculum directors, and technology directors-- report a 1-to-1 environment in at least one full grade in at least one school in their district. The survey defines 1-to-1 as "each student and teacher [having] one internet-connected wireless computing device for use in the classroom and at home," which excludes implementations that do not allow students to take the computer home, or that keep a set of computers in each classroom. Adding these other, more liberal definitions raises significantly the number of 1-to-1 programs nationwide, and as such, the number of schools facing bandwidth problems.

There are times when bandwidth issues can be resolved fairly painlessly. McCall cites one such instance. About 100 of Stephen F. Austin's students used to gather in the gym before school started, fire up their laptops, and play online games over the network. Elementary schools, who started work earlier than the middle schools, were unable to get online to do simple administrative tasks at the start of the day because of the drag the middle school students were putting on the system. Network technicians responded by cranking up their web filters, preventing access to online gaming sites, and the students soon stopped jamming the network, leaving it open for educators to do their morning business.

Sometimes a bandwidth problem is not so easy to fix. BISD adopted new math textbooks featuring a large array of online, interactive activities that oblige students to be on the network a lot-- as do the district's social studies texts, which come from the same publishing company. The volume of users appeared to be too much for the network to support, as teachers of both subjects began finding themselves unable to get to the company's website. At first the solution was simply to get online before the other classes did. However, analysis by network staff indicated that the problem was not BISD's network, but rather the textbook company's website. The site was not prepared for 500- plus students from the same school hitting it at one time.

When bandwidth problems do occur, districts cope. Bryan keeps Moodle and Discovery Education's Streaming, a digital video-based teaching resource, on a server in the school and keeps e-mail and blogging in-house with applications on its own servers. Sometimes, if school bandwidth is insufficient, students get resourceful. McCall tells the story of one group of students who had a habit of standing next to a classroom window with their laptops every day. After investigating, teachers found out that the kids were tapping in to the network of a house across the street from the school. This became a teachable moment in ethics for the students as well as a field trip to the house across the street for a lesson in network security.

When bandwidth is limited, districts generally cut back the use of applications, such as those involving streaming video. As "ADS 2008" reports, without streaming video, students are left with a still photo, and the academic experience is not the same. "Pedagogic value is sacrificed," the report says.

If pedagogic value is sacrificed, so is student engagement, and ultimately so is achievement. Before Principal Moore came to Stephen F. Austin, laptops were put to use sporadically. In her two years at the school, she has fostered a culture that emphasizes technology use as well as focuses on achievement. The results of her efforts can be seen in the boost in scores on Texas' high-stakes tests. For example, In 2005-06, the year before Moore arrived, 67 percent of students passed the social studies portion of the statewide exam. In 2006-07, 80 percent passed, and this year the number rose again, to 84 percent.

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There's a lesson to be had there: Teaching the students "the right way" starts with providing resources that will help engage them in learning. Once that engagement is established, achievement is almost sure to follow.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the editorial director of T.H.E. Journal.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.