Hotspots, YouTube, WiFi, Oh My! How Renton Prioritizes Infrastructure Over Devices

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A student at Renton Public Schools' Lakeridge Elementary School works on a laptop. / Renton Public Schools

Since 2013, close to a third of the US school districts have charged into “one-to-one” digital instruction, putting a computer in the hands of every student—and the number is growing. It’s an alluring path, in part because it placates parents and school boards demanding a “21st century” education. But too many have also had a chilling moment when they realized their bandwidth infrastructure couldn’t begin to deliver on their technology goals.

That’s exactly the experience that leaders in Renton Public Schools in Washington aimed to avoid three years ago when they began planning the district’s future. So they turned the process upside down: district leaders decided to build the infrastructure first, then add the computers gradually. In their district-wide tech plan for 2016 to 2022, Renton set a goal of reaching a 1:1 device-to-student ratio for all middle and high schoolers in the 2019-2020 school year.

Renton school leaders keenly felt pressure to go one-to-one: The district is located less than 20 miles south of Microsoft’s headquarters, but serves one of the most diverse and impoverished communities in the state. “Everyone is saying ‘we are in a digital world,’ so how do we support every student, especially those that might not have WiFi access at home?” asks Ellen Dorr, Renton’s Director of Digital Learning. “We also know that prioritizing underserved students means, for example, better literacy tools that support ELL students, which requires more internet access for students.”

To build a stronger infrastructure and get to better internet access, the district needed a strong team of decision-makers, so the story of Renton really starts with its people.

Hotspots and YouTube and WiFi, Oh My!

As in many districts, technology issues in Renton had wound up in the hands of multiple groups over the years: a “customer service team” that fielded complaints and questions from anyone in the district; an “infrastructure team” that provided technical support; and Dorr’s instructional technology team, which has since changed its name to the “digital learning team.” Quite often, these teams collaborated to create policies around technology and to problem-solve whatever challenges would arise.

A common example of crossover between the teams occurred when a teacher wanted to unlock a website. The teacher would send an email to the customer service team asking them to unblock the site. The customer service team would pass along this request to the digital learning team, which would make a decision about whether the website should be unblocked. Then the infrastructure team would step in to make the technical change. Although these types of requests were very common, the process was complicated and labor-intensive--so the teams involved knew they needed to make a change.

Collectively, they interviewed and collected feedback from educators (many of whom were frustrated by the district’s past WiFi struggles) and then laid out a three-prong set of priorities: make the existing networks easier to use, rethink the district’s internet filtering policies, which had in the past been very tight, and bring in hotspots to bridge spotty service.

Initiative 1: Open Up Networks — Prior to 2014, only “registered users” could access the district’s WiFi networks. The password requirements blocked parents from using the network, and when students forgot their login passwords, work ground to a halt.

To solve these issues, Renton decided to unlock access. As part of the decision process, the district considered the risks such as making the network more vulnerable to attack or providing free internet to everyone. Ultimately Renton decided that the benefits outweighed the risks, and that this change would bring the district one step closer to its commitment to equity of access.

Initiative 2: Reconsidering Internet Filtering — Filtering policies had originally been set up to protect students, but they often frustrated secondary educators and students alike. Teachers frequently made requests for websites to be blocked or unblocked.

In late 2014, Renton revived an “Internet Filtering Committee” (IFC), and asked it to meet twice a year to make—and remake—filtering choices. The committee included Dorr, the head of infrastructure, the district webmaster, teachers, digital learning coaches, the district CTO, and parents. A digital learning coach separately ran a student group on filtering, and added that voice to the planning group, as well.

Over the course of that year, the group ultimately voted to open up access for all PreK-12 students to many previously blocked sites, including YouTube—and in doing so, allowed teachers to help students learn how to filter for themselves.

Initiative 3: Patch the Holes — In 2014, Renton decided to add more access points to the network. Although there were many reasons, in large part the district had moved away from desktops and more teachers were using carts of devices, often for assessment.

Renton added 1,100 Access Points across its 25 campuses—increasing available internet bandwidth to 85 megabits per student, ten times the speed that it had been before.

This increase brought one access point into each classroom, allowing teachers to run assessments from any room on campus. Instructional areas such as libraries and classroom got hot spots. But so, too, did areas such as gyms and cafeterias. “It helps to have Access Points in the cafeteria when you bring in a bunch of parents for Parents’ Night,” Dorr says.

Results and Unanticipated Consequences

All the effort poured into getting the infrastructure right is paying off: The number of requests to block or unblock sites has dropped to almost zero, compared to the stack of weekly requests that used to roll in. Administering standardized tests is going smoothly, too: When Renton ran a recent English Language Proficiency testing block, Dorr reports that there were “almost no issues” related to WiFi. And the district has gotten email addresses and Office 365 into the hands of every student. There has also been an effort to increase pilots, and currently the district is running five pilots that are all fully integrated into the instructional model.

One unanticipated consequence of opening up the WiFi network, Dorr notes, is that both teachers and students can more readily find and use online software. But they might not know the consequences of some of these programs. “They might not know that they’ve been tricked into a freemium model,” Dorr suggests. They might inadvertently expose sensitive data.

So, Dorr has added another bullet point to her “To Do” list—namely, creating a system, called the “web app and hardware approval process,” to make it easy for teachers to get approval to use new edtech products or advice about what to use. When a request comes in, Dorr and her team place each request into one of four categories: supported, approved, approved with cautions, or not allowed. Dorr is aiming to publish these findings quarterly, sharing which resources are available and why so that teachers can make informed decisions.

Renton is also now moving on its districtwide tech plan for 2016 to 2022, to ensure equitable access for every student and that every middle and high school student has a device that can be used in school and also taken home. (Currently, the district has approximately 15,000 students and 7,800 devices) With that plan will come conversations about infrastructure beyond school grounds, Dorr reports. Along with bringing in 3,000 new devices for students this year, Dorr reports that she’ll be facilitating a meeting this winter with every Renton school’s leadership team to discuss uses of WiFi, digital tools, digital citizenship, and more.

Infrastructure might not be the sexiest or shiniest topic of conversation when it comes to 1:1—but when a district like Renton elects to add 2900 new student devices to its tech repertoire this year, Dorr and her team are hoping to hear three little words: “The WiFi works.”

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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