Developing the IT Infrastructure to Support Technology in the Classroom
This article originally appeared in Volume 2, Issue 2 of <theScript> Quarterly digital magazine.
When you think about technology in the classroom, maybe you have a postcard image in your head of students and teachers collaborating over laptops and tablets, smiling and pointing at their screens while they discuss projects and assignments. There’s nothing wrong with that image. In fact, it’s probably what a lot of school administrators envision when they set out to implement new classroom technology initiatives. However, it doesn’t tell the real story of how schools lay the foundation for that picture-perfect moment.
A lot of careful planning goes into building and maintaining the IT infrastructure of K–12 schools with successful 1:1 computing and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs. IT administrators have to think about how they will ensure Wi-Fi connectivity on campus — in terms of both coverage and bandwidth — how students will complete online tasks outside the classroom and how technology goals might change or evolve over time.
Each of these considerations could be accompanied by a host of challenges. And for some schools, not having access to the right solutions could seriously impede technology initiatives and widen the digital divide.
What educational technology could look like
Kyrene Elementary School District in Arizona is exactly the kind of place where you could capture that aha moment with classroom technology. Of the 25 schools in the district, 13 have received the A+ School of Excellence award from the Arizona Education Foundation, and the district itself is one of the top-performing public school districts in the state.
Damian Nichols, the district’s director of information technology, will tell you technology has played a key role in the district’s success. “We don’t use technology just to use it. We use it where it makes sense, and we use it where it helps to enhance and provide support for teaching and learning,” he explains.
“It allows the students to create and share work and collaborate as a class and as different groups. It keeps them super engaged and up-to-date with the most relevant info. Much of our curriculum … is geared toward being able to use digital technology to help support whatever’s going on in the classroom,” he adds.
But the district is not without its challenges. “We’ve discovered that, as teaching and learning have evolved, more and more stuff is happening not in the classroom — in other words, in hallways and out on the fields and in ramadas. So we’ve had to kind of change our strategy on where we want coverage and where we want high bandwidth availability in different parts of the site,” says Nichols.
As a large, urban district, Kyrene has some distinct advantages where bandwidth service is concerned. “A lot of districts tend to buy directly off state contract pricing. We never do that,” Nichols points out.
“For us, just getting the broadband to the buildings is not as big of a challenge as it used to be,” he says, citing the willingness of broadband providers to offer the physical infrastructure upgrades necessary to get service where it’s needed. “It’s more about procuring it and making sure we’re getting the best pricing for it.” Nichols explains that the district consistently requests bids and has been able to leverage its size and its high-bandwidth needs to get the best savings. But for rural school districts with access to fewer providers, the story is different.
Broadband … for a price
According to a March 2016 report by the Consortium for School Networking and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, “School bandwidth demands are growing at a rate of over 50% per year, with the highest growth rates seen at schools implementing 1:1 and BYOD initiatives.“ Yet many schools still can’t achieve adequate internet connectivity.
The State of the States report by EducationSuperHighway found that while 10.4 million more students gained the internet access necessary for digital learning in 2016, 11.6 million students are still being left behind. Among the findings:
- 15,000 schools reported insufficient Wi-Fi access in their classrooms.
- 19,000 schools did not meet the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) minimum connectivity goal of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff.
- 3,700 schools did not have the fiber-optic connectivity to meet current and future needs.
According to the report, “Only half of all school districts are receiving the amount of internet access they would if they were able to procure bandwidth at national benchmark prices. … Not surprisingly, the cost of bandwidth has a significant impact on whether students and teachers have the internet access they need for digital learning.”
As it turns out, schools actually pay more for lower bandwidth. The report states, “Districts that do not meet the FCC’s 100 kbps per student minimum threshold pay 2.3x more for their bandwidth than districts meeting the FCC goal, while those meeting the 2018 goal of 1 Mbps per student pay 60% less than those at 100 kbps per student.”
Lack of competition could be to blame, especially in rural areas. The 2016 Annual Infrastructure Survey by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) found that, because geography limits competition in rural areas, it was ranked as the second most significant overall barrier to increasing connectivity. Of rural respondents:
- 54% reported only one provider offers internet service to their school system.
- 40% reported receiving one or fewer qualified proposals for broadband services in 2016.
- 29% reported geography is a significant barrier to increasing connectivity.
However, EducationSuperHighway’s report concludes that schools are failing to invest enough in their IT infrastructure. “Even with affordable broadband, 5% of school districts will still not meet the 100 kbps per student connectivity goal. This is because these districts are investing less than 30% as much per student as their peers,” the report states.
Creative solutions to close the gap
In today’s education landscape, the digital divide is what separates the haves from the have-nots. Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist and assistant professor in the Department of African-American Studies at Princeton University, spoke about the inequality of access to educational technology in her keynote speech at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) 2016 Conference & Expo.
“Children today live in parallel realities where some are nurtured and others crushed. … Adopting technology without wrestling with this parallel apartheid-like reality ensures that 10, 20, 30 years from now, the gap in educational opportunity and life outcomes will be even wider than today,” says Benjamin.
Digital learning initiatives aren’t just limited by the availability of internet access on campus. Whether students have access to the internet at home determines the kinds of projects and homework teachers can assign. Lack of access can inhibit collaboration, communication and resource use.
But some schools have developed novel ways to innovate around these problems. In November 2016, Montgomery County Public Schools became the first district in Virginia to begin using its school buses as Wi-Fi hot spots. At night, the buses are parked in areas throughout the county where they can emit wireless signals to students living in rural areas who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the internet.
In Putnam County, Tennessee, a school began piloting another kind of school bus Wi-Fi program in March 2017 to see if providing internet access to students with long bus routes into rural areas would enable them to make better use of their travel time.
Solutions like these could help close the educational technology gap, but schools are hesitant to buy into offbeat initiatives because they need to know their efforts will pay off in the long term.
Playing the long game
Kyrene Elementary School District takes special care in how it invests in its IT infrastructure and equipment.
“We do a lot of forward planning, making sure that we have … all the equipment in place and all the infrastructure ready to go when it’s needed, but we still try to stretch the life as much as we can out of all those devices,” says Nichols. “We’re looking to leverage every E-rate dollar we can get. … It’s limited for us, and so we try to buy gear that we know is going to last, that’s got a proven track record.”
But it’s not always easy to anticipate how needs could change in the future. “When schools buy infrastructure, it’s slightly different from businesses,” Nichols adds. “Our life span is generally longer, and it’s due to budget constraints. So when we buy infrastructure gear, we’re expecting it to last five to eight years, and that’s an eternity in wireless networks.”
Initially, Wi-Fi coverage was a high priority for the district. “We wanted to make sure every square foot of the campus had coverage, so no matter where you were, you could get on the internet. Well, two or three years into that, that quickly changed, and that’s when bandwidth became more important than coverage,” says Nichols.
Kyrene district has been able to pivot with changing priorities and deal with challenges as they arise. “We’ve been systematically addressing buildings. Where we have 1:1 computing, we need more bandwidth, so we’ve gone in and upgraded access points and put more access points in, to the point where we’re pretty much one for every classroom now at our 1:1 sites.”
But IT infrastructure maintenance and plans for enhancements have to go a step further than simply procuring the best prices or the sturdiest equipment. Success also comes from getting buy-in from the right stakeholders.
Bringing the right people to the table
Nichols’ IT department is unique in that it sits on nearly every committee meeting from other departments. “We need to know what’s going on so that something doesn’t catch us off guard,” he explains.
Because of this practice, the district’s IT department was able to ensure its schools could support Arizona’s Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching (AzMERIT) online exams two years in advance of when that would be required. In fact, Kyrene was one of the initial pilot districts for the online test and one of the first to fully implement AzMERIT 100% online.
Building a successful IT infrastructure that anticipates needs rather than reacting to them is no easy feat. “You need to think outside IT,” says Nichols. “You have to work hand in hand with curriculum and hand in hand with special programs and hand in hand with every single department … because they all use the network. We can put in a wireless network, but unless we know what these other groups are planning on doing three, four, five, 10 years down the road, we don’t know what we’re building to.”
Nichols believes teamwork is another essential ingredient to success. “It’s super important to work as a team. A lot of times that’s easier said than done. We really make an effort — not just IT — I mean every department in Kyrene makes a concerted effort to think about who needs to be at the table,” he says.
“We sit in on so many meetings and so many projects that are going on, but it’s invaluable. We have to. And that’s why things work. That’s why our community loves what we’re doing.”