Bandwidth issues could mean lost learning opportunities
By Jennifer Wohlleb
It doesn’t matter if it’s on a highway or the Internet, no one likes to be stuck in traffic.
As more learning moves online and schools and students increase the number of “smart devices” they use, district bandwidth is being stretched to its limits.
David Couch, associate commissioner in the Department of Education’s office of Knowledge, Information and Data, said without an increase in funding to address this issue, Kentucky’s once nation-leading information superhighway will rapidly become a winding dirt road.
“When you have a cut, it means we have to slow down districts,” he said. “Instead of having a 10-lane highway into your district, you now have five lanes ... the Internet is really lanes on a highway and when the legislature back in 2006-07 significantly bumped up the high-speed network, we were able to avoid the road being slowed down and also were able to be a national leader in moving to cloud-based computing.”
Couch said his office’s No. 1 budget priority during the legislative session was securing $2.5 million for the high-speed Kentucky Education Network (KEN) to be able to meet districts’ growing needs. The network’s budget has taken a 17 percent hit in recent years. As of press time, the budget was still in progress.
“You wonder if legislators really understand what KEN is and what it does, so we always encourage districts to get with legislators and let them see through the eyes of a teacher, through the eyes of a student, the impact the network gives, instructionally and administratively,” he said.
Bullitt County Schools leaders recently met with one of their state representatives to demonstrate how this problem will begin affecting its students and teachers. It is one of about 10 districts who are regularly hitting their bandwidth ceiling.
“We noticed this starting to be a problem last year,” said Jim Jackson, Bullitt’s district technology coordinator. “What we had to do was block streaming media, like YouTube, from students. We found that by filtering and blocking that, we were able to get a little more bandwidth back. All streaming media is bandwidth intensive and we had to ban that to meet instructional needs.”
He said maxed-out bandwidth means slow-loading Web pages, timed-out sessions and difficulty in using newer technologies like videoconferencing.
“It will limit our ability to bring the world to our students,” Jackson said. “For example, I sat in on videoconferencing at one of our middle schools and there was a group of students from Norway or the Netherlands and they collaborated on the Hunger Games books. They talked about their perception of that book. So you had two groups from around the world literally, discussing these books.
“We’ve also had interviews with artists at a museum in St. Louis where students were able to ask them questions.”
Jackson said to mitigate some of these issues, the district is hosting more things internally on its own servers, including COMPASS, Infinite Campus, Encyclomedia and program reviews.
“We’ve tried to do as many of those things internally as possible so we could preserve our bandwidth for other instructional needs,” he said. “That had worked up to a point and now we’re starting to see that that is no longer good enough.”
Jackson said the district’s decision in January to allow students to begin bringing their own devices to school – smart phones, tablets and laptops – is also taxing the system. But these devices are now the learning tools of today and help districts reap their benefits without having to provide a computer for every student.
The ubiquity of these devices as well as cloud-based computing is a big reason the network needs to grow.
“We’ve done that with our financial management system and we’re about two-thirds of the way through that,” Couch said. “Most content resides on the Internet someplace and students have a huge demand for content that’s out there. We’re also building this continuous instructional-improvement technology system that adds a lot of content and formative assessment. You also have a lot of assessments that are given online; you have MAP and PASS, ThinkLink, a whole variety of those, along with our end-of-course assessments.
“So you have all of those coming into play and it makes sense to do those things as much as you can through the network. But typically you have to keep that thing growing.”
Since not all districts use the same amount of bandwidth, Couch said the department has been able to move bandwidth from those districts to the ones that are using it the most – but it’s a temporary fix.
In addition to the request for additional funding, Couch said in December the department will accept requests for proposals for supplemental bandwidth for the high-speed network. He hopes a vendor will be able to provide more bandwidth at better rates.
In the meantime, Couch encouraged educators to continue talking to their legislators and letting them know how much learning is dependent on access to this technology.
“The analogy I like to use is cars, because people understand what happens when you close a lot of these lanes down,” he said. “I always like to consider a huge truck as carrying things like a video and audio (in the amount of bandwidth it uses) — it takes up a lot of space. A little email, that can be a Volkswagen. So you have all of this going on and if you close down lanes, it means it’s slow to respond, which means it’s unreliable or too frustrating to use.”