Running Our Networks at the Speed of Learning

kids running

by Fae (public domain)

Today’s technology landscape for a school isn’t anything like it was in 2007. When I first began to coach teachers on the use of technology, we had fixed labs with projectors and a teacher laptop was an innovation. With the proliferation of classroom hardware, and the ascendance of cloud-based resources, our brave new world is connected like never before. And such connection demands robust Internet speeds. It’s no surprise that “Broadband and Network Capacity” was identified as the leading issue facing school technology leaders in CoSN’s annual K12 IT Leadership Report.

The goals for network connectivity set forth by the FCC in its E-Rate Modernization Order when it was released in 2014, were …

  • 100 Mbps / 1000 students as a near-term goal
  • 1 Gbps / 1000 students as a longer-term goal
  • 10 Gbps should be the capability of any new network installation project, so future bandwidth increases can scale beyond the reach goal of 1 Mbps / student.

How close is your school to providing this type of bandwidth to each of your students? Many schools find themselves closer to the 2014 standard than the “longer-term goal” the ConnectEd initiative was looking to hit by 2018.

Action Steps

If you are a school leader reading this right now, and you’re wondering how your building or district stacks up, I’d recommend the following strategies:

1. Do some background homework.

My top three resources are below, in order of complexity.

Network Essentials for Superintendents:

  • Released by Education Superhighway, a leading nonprofit focused on increasing equitable access to the Internet for all children
  • This handbook lays out the basics of network design and outlines the technology adoption process in non-technical language. It is an approachable resource for school leaders at every level.

Future Ready Schools: Building Technology Infrastructure

  • Created by the Office of Educational Technology, the arm of the Department of Education responsible for advising schools on the adoption and implementation of technology
  • This infrastructure planning guide begins with the tenet “Put learning first” and proceeds to outline the technology planning and implementation process in great detail.

Smart Education Networks by Design (SEND)

  • Developed by the Consortium of School Networking Community (CoSN), one of the largest associations of school technology leaders in the US
  • SEND has more technical information than the resources above, and can serve as a reference guide to interpret RFP bids when they are returned. The SEND materials also include a slide deck template for board presentations and a checklist technology leaders can fill out as they work through the planning process.

2. Build a collaborative vision for learning, prior to talking about technology.

Each of the resources I’ve mentioned above begin with this step. If the vision is lacking, stakeholders in the process will wonder who is leading the charge and why the district is taking on what will certainly be a large investment of time and financial resources. Gather a collaborative team of both instructional and technology leaders, outline what learning should look like in 5 years, and work with the team to plan what curricula and technology must be put in place to enable that type of learning to take place.

3. Leverage E-Rate funding while it exists.

The Second E-Rate Modernization Order extended funding of E-Rate Category 1 and 2 items into the 2019 federal budget. While changes in the philosophy of the FCC have brought doubt regarding the future of federal funding, this only reinforces the importance of securing funding now.

Eligible services for Category 1 include Internet connectivity and fiber installation, including “dark fiber” connections between multiple buildings, an effort that allows districts to more effectively manage ISP cost over the long term.

Eligible services for Category 2 include “routers, switches, wireless access points, internal cabling, racks, wireless controller systems, firewall services, uninterruptable power supply, and the software supporting each of these components.” In addition to the items above, “basic maintenance, managed Wi-Fi, and caching functionality” are also qualifying purchases. The last item, “caching functionality” includes the purchase of servers used for caching content, lightening the load on direct access to the Internet.

4. Determine metrics to evaluate impact.

One of CoSN’s core beliefs states, “The primary challenge we face in using technology effectively is human.” The primary purpose of these technology updates is to improve the lives of our kids. We should judge success not based on Internet connectivity levels, but on lives changed. To hear how one large school district approached metrics for their technology upgrade initiative, read this comprehensive post by Baltimore County Public School’s superintendent, S. Dallas Dance.

Getting these four keys right – research, vision, funding, and metrics – will make for an infrastructure upgrade that is more than just a hardware replacement. Nailing these steps brings us closer to providing what American education is all about – a fair, equitable, and high-quality education for all.

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