States assess their readiness for digital learning

By Dennis Pierce
March 8th, 2016


Statewide ed-tech inventories are helping state leaders assess their digital learning needs

When Ray Timothy, executive director of the Utah Education and Telehealth Network, saw the results of a new statewide inventory of technology deployed across all 989 Utah public schools, one figure jumped out at him in particular.

It was the 100-percent response rate from the survey.

“We knew most districts and schools would respond, but a 100-percent response rate shows that technology is a high priority for education leaders throughout the state,” he said.

State leaders were less surprised to learn that, on average, there are only about six devices for every 10 Utah students, or that the wireless infrastructure is not adequate in many schools.

Utah lawmakers had wanted to get a clearer picture of the ed-tech strengths and needs of the state’s school districts and public charter schools. They commissioned a school technology inventory that was completed by Connected Nation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring affordable broadband to all Americans. Connected Nation released the results of the survey last month.

“We know from our own metrics that [schools’] use of our bandwidth has more than quadrupled over the last three years, but we didn’t know some of the specifics, like the ratio of computers to students or what applications they’re using,” Timothy said. “This study provided a much more comprehensive picture of where we are.”

Christine Fox, deputy executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association, said statewide ed-tech inventories such as Utah’s “provide leaders with details so they can best support schools’ needs based on their [technology] access and implementation levels.”

SETDA supports the use of such survey tools to help state leaders understand where best to deploy their public dollars, Fox said. She added that many other states have undertaken similar initiatives.

“New Jersey and Michigan developed individual state tech readiness tools in preparation for (online) assessment,” she said. “New Mexico has a custom tool. Massachusetts is also considering a tool. Alabama and I believe a few other states have annual inventory reports. In some states, like New Jersey, participation is optional. However, so far the local school systems have seen great value in participating, and they have a high level of interest.”

In fact, Fox said, SETDA is working to secure funding for a potential pilot project to build an ed-tech inventory tool that would be based on the NJTrax DL survey that New Jersey has deployed. If the funding comes through, SETDA’s tool would be available across multiple states.

“A multistate pilot can help reduce costs, leverage the work already completed, and provide a broader scope of data sets,” she said. In the meantime, the organization offers an online resource to help states assess their digital learning needs.

New Jersey’s system, which took a year to develop, just went live on Jan. 20. It collects information about the status of school and district readiness to deploy digital learning, as well as actual implementation of digital learning at the classroom level, said Laurence Cocco, director of the Office of Educational Technology for the New Jersey Department of Education.

“Readiness is determined by surveying school and district policies and procedures in support of digital learning; implementation is determined by surveying actual classroom practices,” Cocco said. “The assessment process is ongoing, as schools and districts may take the surveys and issue reports at any time.”

The Utah survey was the second statewide school technology inventory that Connected Nation has done. Last year, it completed a similar project for Alaska.

“Both Utah and Alaska are eventually looking to get to some kind of a one-to-one model for personalized learning,” said Brent Legg, vice president of education programs for Connected Nation. “In both cases, state leaders wanted to understand the scope of the challenges they face, so they can figure out how to tackle those.”

In Utah’s case, the survey revealed that state leaders need to invest in more devices and wi-fi infrastructure, as well as more support for teacher professional development.

“The great news is that Utah is widely recognized as having one of the best bandwidths available for students,” Legg said. One reason, he said, is that E-rate applications for Utah school districts are coordinated at the state level.

In contrast, Alaska faces steep challenges in delivering affordable broadband to all schools because of its sheer size and geographic complexity.

“In some Alaskan communities, you have to fly in and out because there is no land-based access,” Legg said. “That makes landline connectivity very difficult. We found that one district was paying $2 million per year for six megabits per second of connectivity—something that might cost only $25 a month in the lower 48 states.”

Many Alaskan schools rely on satellite internet access, he said, but “any time you’re bouncing internet traffic off of a satellite, it’s slow. This latency makes video conferencing very difficult. Normally, a latency rate of 50 milliseconds or more is considered problematic—and Alaskan schools often have a second or more.”

Policy makers in both Utah and Alaska are using the results of their ed-tech inventories to figure out how best to focus their limited resources.

“We’ve already reported the findings to state legislators, who are considering a law that would create a State Qualifying Grant Program to fund more technology and training,” said Timothy. “If that law passes, the next step is likely to be the formation of an advisory committee to start implementing the plan.”

About the Author:

The former editor-in-chief of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer covering education and technology.