Is your school network ready to support next-generation learning?
In the newly-released 2014 CoSN IT Leadership Survey , district technology leaders indicate that being ready for online assessments is their number one priority. And fewer than 18 percent report their district is fully ready for the online and other digital assessments starting this fall in many states. Clearly, school systems must take steps to prepare their districts for the onset of this new era of online testing. To help school district leaders, CoSN recently released our Raising the BAR: Becoming Assessment Ready  initiative.
We’re also calling on Congress to provide funding in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget to help districts fill assessment technology gaps and related professional development.
Yet, I would argue that district leaders focusing on “readiness” should not be solely limited to more sophisticated assessments. School systems need a modern, robust education network – one that is designed for learning, not simply testing. We must have education networks with broadband connectivity, Wi-Fi across the campus, and a strategy for outside-of-school access to enable learning.
(Next page: Steps to building reliable networks)
Building a scalable, affordable, and reliable education network is no longer “nice to have.” It is a basic requirement for school districts today. As President Obama said: “In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, we should definitely demand it in our schools.”
We are at a tipping point for technology in K-12 – it is a “new normal.”
Reality of today’s education network
Last fall, CoSN released a national survey documenting the woeful state of most education networks:
- 43 percent of the school districts say none of their schools currently can meet the goal of 100Mbps of internet access per 1,000 students.
- More than 40 percent of all classrooms do not have wireless internet connectivity.
- Even if we had truly broadband connectivity to our school doors, classroom connections in most schools are inadequate and result in slow connections 
The steady convergence of high-speed mobile broadband, ubiquitous mobile devices, higher capacity networks, cloud services, big data, and virtualization are all game-changers for our education networks. Education networks should be “future-ready” and adaptable to constant technological updates.
Help is here
School system leaders need help to design robust, well-designed education networks. CoSN’s free, vendor-neutral Smart Education Networks by Design (SEND) initiative , created with support from Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., will help your district to plan smartly, effectively and efficiently to meet the challenges of today’s learning environment. At the website you can download a rich set of free Design Guidelines, as well as a comprehensive Checklist.
Determining where you are going
Take a look at this online readiness chart (below) to determine where you are today. Most districts are at Basic Connectivity for Supplemental Enrichment. You know the drill: limited or no wireless; 100MB/1GB core; limited internet; bad cabling; and, analog voice service. This option is designed for Scarcity.
The next level of Emerging Reliance on Online Educational Tools and resources is where leading school districts are and most districts are headed. The network has: limited mobility; increasing Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategies; some wireless coverage; some service server virtualization; adequate business continuity; some online instructional services; limited directory integration and device management; marginally adequate internet (100M/1GB and some 10GB Core); better cabling; fiber WAN and VOIP. Better, but still an emerging education network.
We argue that to get to 21st century teaching and learning, we need to evolve to the highest bar: Transformation to a Technology-Rich Learning Environment. This option requires: full mobility (one-to-one) and BYOD, WWAN support for mobility, wireless coverage and capacity; many online resources, courses and instructional services with 24/7 availability; and more.
President Obama has started the conversation with the ConnectEd vision . The Federal Communications Commission is now asking for suggestions on how to modernize the eRate. This effort will require a substantial increase in eRate funding to meet growing educational broadband needs. Now is the time for this investment.
Stepping up to build up
School system leaders must lead this effort and educate our school boards and communities as to why a modern, smart network is critical to transform the learning experience. Our chief priority should be to ensure that we have learning environments that support and prepare students for college and careers in an increasingly digital world. Technology holds the promise of enabling more personalized learning, but only IF we have powerful broadband networks that support this transformation.
Keith Krueger is the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking.