Infrastructure in Schools
Plugging in, Juicing Up
There is no “digital learning environment” without reliable and ample communications connectivity, networks that work and devices that truly go “on” at the touch of a switch. Underscore reliable. In past decades, schools and their supporters figured it was their job just to get tech. Once inside of schools, however, tech gear often wound up orphaned or supported only by heroic teachers (librarians), who moonlighted as their own tech support crew.
In 2015, the emphasis evolved away from mere access to technology to smart use of reliable technology.
The core communications infrastructure in schools includes access to high-speed bandwidth, wireless networking within a school, and low-cost devices for tapping into the network. To make it a truly robust infrastructure, the National Education Technology Plan says schools also need thoughtful data privacy and digital citizenship policies, quality instructional resources and ways to ensure all students have internet access at home.
Through the ConnectED initiative, AT&T committed $100 million of free mobile broadband access for educational devices, mobile device management, network filtering and teacher professional development for three years to 50,000 students and teachers in Title 1 schools. Access to mobile broadband gives students and teachers access to interactive content, software that lets students learn at their own pace, and potential breakthroughs in teaching and learning.
US schools are building out their core communications infrastructure tremendously: through its 2013 ConnectED initiative, the Obama Administration pledged to connect 99% of schools with next generation broadband by 2018. A year later, the Federal Communications Commission helped schools pay by revamping its “e-rate” program to provide $3.9 billion annually to schools and libraries largely for broadband. (Schools had previously used the money to cover other communications fees, such as telephone services.) In 2014, the Department of Education also introduced the Future Ready District pledge, which provides a roadmap for schools to better leverage technology to impact student learning. And states began pitching in. According to EducationSuperHighway, 38 state governors have taken actions to upgrade connectivity in schools—for instance, California put $50 million in its 2015-16 budget to upgrade schools’ last mile connections.
And that communications infrastructure is likely to keep getting better: The federal government and states are tipping more funds—and policies—to support schools’ broadband connectivity. In 2015, the FCC ruled AT&T must respond to all request for proposals for fiber connections made by schools and libraries during the next four years—though this only applies to organizations tapping into e-rate funds in AT&T’s 21 state operating footprint, it has a big potential for impact. Schools, districts, and states are likely to become more savvy about jointly purchasing bandwidth access and using e-rate funds—district purchasing power over the last two years has already grown by 5 times, according to EducationSuperHighway.
Devices are proliferating both with and without official help. Schools poured large budgets into buying devices—according to the 2015 EdNET Insight Survey, 46% of school districts cited an increase in hardware budgets (compared to 25% in 2013). Schools ultimately favored low-cost tablets and Chromebooks; in fact, Chromebooks accounted for more than 50% of all mobile devices purchased by US schools in Q3 of 2015. Students did their part, too, with almost 75% of teenagers reporting that they have or have access to a smartphone.
The past few years have been a time of significant change for technology infrastructure in our schools—but much work remains. According to CoSN's annual Infrastructure Survey (2015), the top concerns are affordability, network speed, network competition, the growing number of devices, and the expectation that it will all work seamlessly. To help alleviate some of these concerns, our schools are tapping into the following resources:
- E-Rate: In 2014, the FCC approved a modernized E-Rate program with a $1.5 billion annual funding increase and allowed schools to use the funds to focus on broadband, LAN, and Wi/Fi updates. The revisions also implemented a simplified application process, and required the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), which administers the program, to make its pricing transparent and thereby help districts negotiate rates.
- ConnectED: In 2013, the Obama Administration launched the ConnectED initiative to provide needed technology professional development for teachers and leaders. In addition, it secured more than $2 billion in commitments from more than 20 private companies to upgrade school infrastructure and provide access to technology resources.
- State and local capital financing: School districts can issue bonds for capital and technology improvements and states can get into the bond action as well. New York, for example, passed the Bonds for School Technology Act in 2014, which authorized the state comptroller to sell bonds up to $2 billion to finance technology and infrastructure upgrades.
More than half of all K-12 students—including roughly proportionate shares in rural and low-income schools—have enough bandwidth at school to give them the means to do digital learning. Internet connectivity in schools is higher than it’s ever been, but there are still 21.3 million students who are not connected to the broadband required for digital learning, and lots of work to be done.
The story changes when kids head home. The Pew Research Center notes that one in six households with school-age children lack broadband connectivity at home—something that can make doing homework even more trying. To chip away at the homework gap on the other hand, “will take lots of creative solutions,” says Evan Marwell, Chief Executive Officer of EducationSuperHighway. “It’s not as neat and tidy as connectivity in schools.”
The new communications infrastructure improvements have paved the way for teachers to focus on enabling digital learning as opposed to creating backup lesson plans in case of internet outages, troubleshooting network connectivity issues, and the like. In 2015, improved infrastructure allowed teachers to try tools and technology-enriched instructional strategies in ways they wouldn’t dare without reliable infrastructure. Being able to rely on stable wifi or working devices freed teachers up to integrate more technology into core instruction. “In our community, there has been a shift away from naysayers who say we don’t need technology. The community is shifting towards viewing devices as tools, not toys,” says Courtney Niemeyer, first grade teacher at Eagle Cliffs School. But there’s still room for improvement. At Nieyemer’s school, like at many others, there are still limitations on how many kids can be using certain apps at the same time.
With connectivity in schools on an upward trajectory, connectivity at students’ homes has become a new frontier for schools and communities to conquer. Teachers sometimes have to make accommodations for students that don’t have access at home. In some instances, this means that teachers will simply not assign homework in classes where students are not allowed to take school devices home. And even when students are allowed to take devices home, there aren’t enough: according to the 2015 CoSN Annual E-Rate and Infrastructure Survey “40% of school systems report one device per two students and 28% report one device per student” at school.
Map of K-12 School Connectivity (2015)