Networking & Wireless

SETDA Raises Broadband Targets for 'Learning in the Digital Age'

The stakes for broadband capacity that schools and districts across America have come to rely on for ensuring they can deliver a robust digital education are being raised. Today, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released a report featuring new goals for internet and wide area network (WAN) services.

But unlike SETDA's 2012 recommendations, which have been picked up and promulgated by the White House, the United States Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission, among others, this latest round of goals in "The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning" offers nuances that were missing the first time around.

For example, the earlier recommendations offered a single set of goals for all schools. This year's set breaks that up by size of district: small (fewer than 1,000 students); medium (about 3,000 students); and large (more than 10,000 students). The medium-sized district goal in the latest report is the only one whose targets for the 2017-2018 school year mesh with the recommendation offered four years ago.

This year's recommendations vary by size of district.

This year's recommendations vary by size of district.

"This is a much needed clarification," said Susie Strangfield, CIO for Oregon's Department of Education. "Establishing a floor for districts allows solutions to be scaled appropriately to meet local needs. One size doesn't necessarily fit all. In Oregon, this will allow districts to appropriately plan for and meet the new SETDA broadband recommendations."

The newest set of SETDA recommendations also provides internet capacity targets for 2020-2021, which are approximately three times that of the 2017-2018 aims.

All of these targets, the report stated, "are based on research; analysis of data sets from districts across eight states regarding both capacity and usage; and consultation with experts in the field." In point of fact, besides primary authors Christine Fox from SETDA and Rachel Jones, an educational consultant, the report references 33 additional contributors from state departments of education, education organizations and industry.

"Today's students need robust bandwidth access to help ensure that their learning experiences are effectively preparing them for college and future careers," said Tracy Weeks, executive director of SETDA, in a prepared statement. "Broadband access supports trends that shift away from traditional learning models towards digital learning opportunities that include dynamic digital instructional materials, online simulations, coding and content creation."

On the WAN front, next year's goal matches exactly what was put forth in 2012: at least 10 Gbps per 1,000 users. And that measure stays in place at least through 2020-2021.

On the WAN front, next year's goal matches exactly what was put forth in 2012: at least 10 Gbps per 1,000 users. And that measure stays in place at least through 2020-2021.

On the WAN front, next year's goal matches exactly what was put forth in 2012: at least 10 Gbps per 1,000 users. And that measure stays in place at least through 2020-2021.

As the report noted, due to technology advancements, data communications capacity within the district's network will, conceivably, no longer be a limiting factor. "Based on recent trends, research and consultation with experts in the field, SETDA expects that WAN requirements will come closer in line to ISP connections as districts utilize cloud-based services, as well as the advent of virtualization — shifting the capacity requirements from the WAN to the ISP connection," the report stated. "Therefore, the WAN recommendations for 2017-2018 remain the same for 2020-2021."

However, that's only true, they added, if schools are able to keep up with upgrades to network devices — "firewalls, routers, WAN accelerators" — in their data centers that will support larger internet traffic volumes. As the report asserted, "These components may need to be upgraded to support the faster speeds contemplated in these recommendations. For instance, firewalls are designed to support specific network throughput speeds delivered by the internet access service (e.g., 1 Gbps, 10 Gbps). As internet access speeds are increased, the firewall in place at the school's premises will also need to be upgraded to support these faster speeds. Increasing the capacity of these ancillary devices offers an opportunity for the school to take advantage of innovative solutions offered by the networking equipment industry."

The report comes down hard on districts that develop their broadband expansion plans "simply based on current usage." As the authors pointed out, "Usage data may be skewed to limited digital learning experiences for students or teachers and/or minimal usage of advanced tools and resources for school administration." Besides, they stated, expansion "takes time," and if IT waits for proof of usage before accommodating additional broadband, teaching and learning could experience interruptions and frustrate users.

SETDA's recommendation is that districts contract with their internet service providers to install circuits "that can support at least 25 percent more capacity than their purchased internet capacity levels so that they can seamlessly upgrade based on increased demands."

Similarly, the report encouraged states themselves to build out broadband networks or promote statewide purchasing consortia to do so, as an additional option for districts without other affordable internet options.

The report also offered a pointed recommendation beyond the broadband targets: ensuring equity of access to students outside of school.

"Gone is an era when students are automatically given textbooks to support their learning," the authors observed. "Equity of access includes ensuring access to devices and sufficient high-speed broadband in school, at home, and everywhere else in the community to utilize digital instructional materials, complete homework assignments, and to connect with students, educators, and experts throughout the world anytime/anywhere."

As states enact policies requiring the use of digital materials in schools, districts are grappling with scenarios where students who are low-income or in rural areas lack access to devices and broadband at the same levels as their peers. To remedy the digital gap, SETDA suggested, states, districts and schools need to bring community partners in to provide access and reach out to families to communicate the importance of out-of-school access and share available options for obtaining it.

During the launch event for the report, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel recounted the story of a California superintendent who pushed for creation of a 1-to-1 program in his rural schools and then installed Wi-Fi routers on school buses so students could access the internet during long rides to and from school. Then he arranged to have those buses parked "next to some of the most remote trailer parks in the district, leaving the routers on so the students least likely to have broadband at home have yet another way to connect."

Overall, SETDA's recommendations emphasize practical considerations for "improving K-12 infrastructure for learning in the digital age," which is essential, the report concluded. "As we prepare our students for both college and careers, education leaders and policy makers should not rest until each student is provided a personalized, equitable learning experience both in and outside of school. Education leaders should continue to collaborate with communities to ensure that all students have broadband access anytime, anywhere. Lastly, leaders must consider the ever changing ecosystem of technology tools and resources and how innovation impacts access at school, at home and in the community."

The full report is available on SETDA's website.

How Broadband Plays Out in One State
In Oregon a sampling of 61 percent of its 197 districts found that 78 percent of districts meet SETDA's 2012 connectivity goals; 88 percent of those schools are on fiber. Among the districts that haven't met the recommended targets, noted state Department of Ed CIO, Susie Strangfield, 81 percent "can get there with their current fiber infrastructure; the remaining districts will likely need upgrades to meet goals."

Policymakers in that state are pursuing a matching fund in the 2017 legislative session for fiber builds that could connect 77 percent of the schools that lack fiber at no cost to the districts.

Also, the state is encouraging districts to tap the resources of Education Service Districts as much as possible for "closing the gap." According to Strangfield, in the area of broadband Oregon has found the results to be more promising. These regional service providers serve 81 percent of Oregon districts, "and 84 percent of their districts meet goals, compared to 52 percent for those that get direct Internet access from another provider."

Then there are "up to 12 percent" of schools connected on a "non-scalable connection, which could limit their ability to [meet] SETDA recommendations," Strangfield added. Of the schools sampled that lack sufficient fiber, more than half (58 percent) are rural, more than a third (37 percent) are small town, four percent are suburban and one percent are urban.

"SETDA's clarification addressing local needs for minimum bandwidth based on size will allow rural and small districts to appropriately set goals to meet new broadband recommendations," she explained. "For Oregon this will have a huge impact."