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What makes a good broadband network for schools?

High-quality broadband access will be particularly important schools roll out online Common Core assessments.

A panel of broadband experts recently agreed that high-quality access for schools and districts means more than providing a connection to the internet—good broadband provides a foundation for innovative initiatives, cloud services, telecommunications, and much more.

Hosted by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), the panel discussed the power of broadband access in schools and how it takes extensive planning, research, and legislative backing to ensure not just access, but high-quality access that can sustain growth.

“Our biggest concern was to have equitable access for all schools and districts,” said Tim Sizemore, program manager for the Kentucky Department of Education’s Kentucky Education Network (KEN). “It started in the early 90s and has developed over the years to a statewide and state-funded broadband initiative.”

According to Mike Leadingham, director of the state education department’s Office of Knowledge, Information, and Data Services, the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA)—which passed in 1990—established funding for broadband access and services for the state’s school districts.

“Allocation of bandwidth for districts is usually based on size,” said Leadingham, “but we make adjustments based on initial usage. Some districts are advanced in terms of using online services and some are not. We make sure all districts get what they need, but we don’t over-allocate.”

Leadingham and Sizemore said the statewide broadband access helps Kentucky districts in many ways. KEN offers:

  • Hub-site connectivity.
  • Online applications access.
  • State-standard cloud services (including eMail, student information system, and financial management).
  • Network, security, and firewall services (including network monitoring and management, as well as district firewall management).
  • Telecommunication services (primary rate interface, long distance, and more).

“By offering equitable access, we can allow for state standards for technical and product aspects,” explained Sizemore. “It also supports state contracts and allows for leverage in buying power.”

Sizemore noted that funding from both the state and federal level is critical and that KEN is a cooperative effort with 100-percent participation from district, state, and federal leaders.

(Next page: California’s success—and how high-quality broadband access can help with student assessment and help boost achievement)

Other panelists included representatives from California’s K12HSN (High Speed Network), who run a similar broadband plan for their state.

“This network supports over 11,000 schools, 6.2 million students, and around 300,000 teachers in over 58 diverse and spread-out counties in California,” said Jose Ortega, administrator for the California Department of Education’s ed-tech office. “It’s also funded by the state DOE and provides schools with equitable connectivity, internet services, teaching and learning application coordination, video conferencing coordination, and support.”

Like Kentucky, California’s network began in the 1990s, but it began with a university-led initiative.

“After the universities got together to connect, K-12 joined around 2000,” said Teri Sanders, senior director of education technology for K12HSN. “Eighty-six percent of California’s districts are now connected through the network, with the others going to commercial vendors.”

California’s network does have special features, however, including administrative participation in CalREN—a high-speed, high-bandwidth network serving the K-12 and higher-education research communities. Participants in CalREN are connected not only to each other, but to institutions around the world.

K12HSN also includes a service called DataLINK, which offers direct access to connectivity data and information for schools and districts. This information can be viewed in standard or customized reports.

Resources that schools and districts can access through K12HSN include:

Officials from both states say some of the biggest concerns now are hosting Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives, online testing, and managing costs.

According to Sizemore, Kentucky’s next generation of broadband will aim to reduce cost of bandwidth to district hubs, increase the bandwidth available to everyone, add interconnected Voice over IP services, and reduce the cost of bandwidth within district wide-area networks.

“We’re also increasing the use of online and cloud-hosted applications,” he said, “including online instructional materials, … online assessment, a P-20 data warehouse, BYOD and mobile device access, and collaboration with Microsoft Office 365 and Google Docs.”

KEN also is advancing online testing initiatives with its centrally managed state-wide network, which allows for firewall and QoS (Quality of Service) rules to be set to prioritize connectivity to a computer-based testing website.

“Expanded bandwidth based on district [average daily attendance] allows for a higher number of concurrent test sessions to be administered,” said Sizemore. “Expanded bandwidth also removes the need for locally-based servers hosting testing content and faster implementation of different testing systems. It also reduces network troubleshooting between districts and testing vendor sites.” That will be particularly important as states move to online Common Core assessments beginning in the  2014-15 school year.

High-quality broadband access provides “such a tremendous impact on classroom learning and instructional improvement,” said Leadingham, “from the inclusion of digital blended learning to dual-credit courses, and from BYOD to a greater focus on collaboration.”

“We’ve had a steady four-year growth period [in scores on California’s Academic Performance Index],” said Sanders, “and much of that is due to the inclusion of digital textbooks, BYOD initiatives, iPads, virtual learning, and data centers.”

Anyone interested in learning more about California’s or Kentucky’s broadband networks, as well as other states’ broadband efforts, can find more details at the recently-launched State Education Policy Center (SEPC).

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