Homework Gap

Broadband and Digital Equity Top Concerns Among IT Leaders

Delivery of broadband off-campus has nearly doubled in K-12 between 2020 and 2021. While 49% of schools didn't provide off-campus services in 2020, just 5% are still in that position. The most popular delivery method, by far, is the deployment of district-run hotspots. Seven in 10 schools use that approach, compared to 17% in the prior year. Three in 10 districts work with their local communities to provide WiFi hotspots, a practice that was adopted by only 19% in 2020. And more than a quarter (27%) provide home access through free and subsidized programs, compared to 10% the previous year.

Those findings surfaced in the latest "Ed Tech Leadership Survey Report," undertaken by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). The survey collected information from 390 members between November 12, 2020 and April 1, 2021. CoSN noted that a disproportionate share of responses — 50% — came from suburban districts, although they actually account for less than a quarter (23%) of districts. Urban districts made up 19% of responses and account for 6% of schools; rural districts accounted for 18% of responses, while making up 53% of the total number of districts.

The survey found that concerns about digital equity are on the rise. Nearly every respondent said he or she had heightened worries about students' home access to devices and the internet, to support remote learning. In fact, for the first time in the history of the survey, digital equity was cited as a top concern, ranking third after challenges related to home internet connections that were too slow for multiple users and connections that were too slow for livestreaming.

On a positive note, the last year has seen a boon in schools meeting the Federal Communications Commission's long-term broadband goal of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students — an aspiration that was first set in 2014. Currently, nearly two-thirds of districts (61%) have met the goal, compared to 49% in 2020 and 36% in 2019.

However, while those results may show progress, the target has moved in the intervening years. "They may fall short of broadband needs of 2021 and especially for those districts that relied on streaming of instruction during the pandemic to connect teachers with their students, as well as student collaboration," the report noted.

More than a third of respondents said they'd need to upgrade components of their IT infrastructure to support the FCC goal. For 37%, that would mean new firewall technology; and for 35% it would be other internet infrastructure components. More than half of districts (57%) said they'd need new gateway routers and/or new content filters, either in the short-term or long-term, while 54% would require an upgrade to DMZ switching.

Most of the network traffic generated by remote learning was dedicated to video (whether synchronous or asynchronous). And nearly every district (94%) said it faced challenges with video conferencing. While the top hurdle was bandwidth, mentioned by 66% of respondents, security breaches also posed difficulties for 43%, as did privacy (38%).

Recently, CoSN updated the objectives for student home bandwidth. While the old goal was 25 Mbps download and 3Mbps upload per household, the new goal is at least 25 Mbps for download and 12 Mbps for upload per student.

"Digital equity has rightly become a top concern during the pandemic, with cybersecurity continuing to be at the forefront of priorities of school system IT leaders," said Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN, in a statement. "Our annual survey allows CoSN to identify key trends like these so that we can better serve our members, inform policymakers and assist school districts in their digital transformations."

The complete report is openly available on the CoSN website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.