This Industry Viewpoint was contributed by Doug Turtz, Vice President Fiber Sales at Crown Castle Fiber
Schools have come a long way in just one generation. Not too long ago, you most likely learned in a classroom with a chalkboard or whiteboard and received direct instruction. In other words, the teacher spoke, you listened and perhaps took some notes. There were regular homework assignments and some in-class tests.
Today, education is much more collaborative, with teachers engaging students in dialogue, and students working in groups to solve problems and use what they’ve learned in real-life examples. Students might work together “virtually” from their homes, or they might work on a long-term assessment as opposed to an in-class exam. The biggest change: in just a decade, technology has not only caused a fundamental shift in the way that schools function, it’s become ingrained as a necessity in our classrooms. But what’s even more significant is that technology is constantly changing. In a few short years, students have gone from storing files on flash drives, to storing assignments in the cloud.
SETTING THE STANDARD
The State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) is national non-profit membership association launched by state education agency leaders nearly a decade ago. Its mission is to support needs with respect to the use of technology for teaching, learning, and school operations. In 2016, broadband targets were set by SETDA. Those goals included internal WAN connections from the district to each school of at least 10 Gigabits per second per 1,000 users. However, the 2016 Broadband Progress Report issued by the Federal Communications Commission, states that 41% of schools fell short of those bandwidth goals that same year.
The problem is, with a rapidly changing tech environment, connectivity demands prompted moving the goalpost faster than schools can meet the requirements. Schools are increasingly shifting to technology-rich learning environments, and that evolution means a skyrocketing increase in bandwidth usage. Tech leaders must plan and design their next-generation education networks to adequately meet this rising demand.
In 2016, the Consortium for School Networking’s Annual E-rate and Infrastructure Survey found that 27% of school IT leaders projected a significant growth in their bandwidth needs over the next 18 months, with some predicting as much as 500% growth. Both then and now, there are several factors driving this predicted need for increased bandwidth. One reason for the dramatic rise in bandwidth requirements is the increase in the number of students with multiple devices, including wearables. According to The Consortium for School Networking, 21% of EdTech leaders say students are using two or more devices, and in a few years the number of students could triple.
DARK FIBER LIGHTS THE WAY
One highly scalable option for the education arena to address this increasing bandwidth demand is through dark fiber networks or other high capacity lit network options. Colleges are starting to understand the benefit and necessity of scalable infrastructure investment, as they have seen incredible spikes in internet usage. Some institutions started with 200Mbps or 1Gig and are now at 20 Gig or more due in part to technical innovations, and increased e-learning and multiple devices per student.
A scalable network also allows for optimal latency. With greater speeds, students can do much more, for example, in terms of downloading materials, which can lead to more online courses or hybrid courses. Sharing data-intensive files among students and between schools can lead to greater collaboration. The bring-your-own-device trend has impacted the networks as well. This increased bandwidth can bring innovation like video, augmented reality, and other expanded features. The seamless user experience, combined under one platform, is essential to meet the goals of using digital technology for student instruction and engagement beyond the classroom.
A dark fiber network can prepare schools to more quickly adopt new innovations. There are many benefits to investing in a dark fiber network:
- Offers virtually unlimited bandwidth at a fixed cost with the potential of capitalizing the network as an asset.
- Allows increased scalability to meet changing bandwidth requirements and future-proof networks for new capabilities.
- Provides IT staff with complete control and the flexibility to adjust as the IT needs and requirements change.
- Supports a large number of configurations, services, and applications.
OBSTACLES AND INNOVATIONS
So, what is the obstacle to bringing schools and colleges into the 21st century in terms of the connected classroom? Sixty percent of school districts surveyed by the Consortium for School Networking in 2014 said that it comes down to dollars and cents, identifying lack of funding as the biggest barrier to providing robust connectivity. The good news is that there is financial aid in the form of the Federal Schools and Libraries Program, which is commonly referred to as “E-rate.” The program offers discounts of up to 90% to help eligible organizations get affordable internet access. All public K-12 schools and libraries, as well as most non-profit schools and private libraries are eligible under the program. Participants must carry out a competitive bidding process, and choose the most cost-effective provider for either telecommunications, internet access or internal connections services. Unfortunately, many schools are not taking advantage of the E-rate program. At the end of Q3 last year, $2.35 billion in E-rate funding had remained unspent, according to the “State of our States” report by Education Superhighway. That funding is set to expire in 2020.
As we look into the near future, changes in education are likely to bring even more bandwidth demands. Schools are already using adaptive learning, a form of Artificial Intelligence (AI), for assessments where students’ answers can shape the difficulty of the test in real time. But AI could take an even more significant role in the classroom in the form of digital teaching assistants. It’s already happening in some fields, like medicine, where platforms such as IBM Watson are helping doctors diagnose patients and analyze MRI scan results.
According to the 2018 New Media Consortium “Horizon Report,” cross-institutional collaboration will become a priority in higher education. As institutions try to predict how learning will change, it’s easy to foresee the need for connectivity.
Education Superhighway reported, 6.5 million students were still not learning in connected classrooms, and 10,000 schools were lacking Wi-Fi connectivity (as of September 2017). When you consider that digital equity is the key to ensuring that today’s students are prepared to become tomorrow’s leaders, it’s clear that this disparity must be addressed.