Group calls for faster broadband in U.S. schools

WASHINGTON — Schools in the U.S. will need broadband speeds of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff members by the 2014-15 school year in order to meet a growing demand for Web-based instruction, according to a new report by a trade group representing state education agencies.

The report, The Broadband Imperative, recommends schools increase their broadband speeds to 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2017-18. Internal WANs connecting schools within districts should be 1 Gbps by 2014-15 and 10 Gbps by 2017-18, said the report, released Monday by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

Schools are moving away from viewing Internet instruction as an add-on to traditional teaching, said Christine Fox, director of educational leadership and research at SETDA. Many schools are beginning to embrace online textbooks, video conferencing and online collaboration tools, she said during a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Broadband access has to be “ubiquitous and the broadband robust,” said Fox, co-author of the new report. Broadband has become a “necessary utility” instead of an add-on, she added.

(In Canada public schools in the largest provinces have access to high speed broadband through provincially-supported networks — Alberta’s SuperNet and Ontario’s Orion, for example. But broadband speeds are slower in smaller provinces and outlying areas. The soon-to-be released federal digital economy strategy may have provisions for helping educational institutions, although the Harper government is reluctant to interfere in education, which it sees as strictly a provincial matter.)

Schools must prepare for a large number of concurrent broadband users as more classrooms work Internet-based learning into their daily activities, Fox said. “Students shouldn’t go to school and wonder if they turn on the light, is it going to dim the light in another room?” she said. “They also shouldn’t wonder, if they go to download a video, is it going to slow the access to the classroom across the hall?”

For high-definition video streaming, each student needs 4 Mbps of download speed, the report said. For group video conferencing on Skype, students need speeds of double that, the report said.

Students at Lawrence Township Public Schools in New Jersey now use video conferencing to learn French from Canadian students, said Andrew Zuckerman, director of instructional services for the district. Students rely on the Internet for research and collaboration throughout the day, he said.

“We can no longer use 20th-century skills to teach 21st-century learners,” Zuckerman added.

Within the next 13 months, the state of Maine will have more Web-enabled devices available for students than it has students, according to Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director at the Maine Department of Education. Maine began providing laptops to seventh-graders in 2002, he said, and schools often purchase the used Apple laptops after their leases expire.

In some Maine schools, there are now 1,400 concurrent broadband users, Mao said. “Fourteen hundred concurrent users are not going to live on a 10-megabit pipe, they’re not going to live on a 50 — they need a much more robust Internet connection,” he said.

Students also need to have access to broadband outside school, Fox said. “Students need to be able to leave school without wondering, ‘Can I watch my teacher’s algebra video when I get home?'” she said.

The report calls on school districts, state governments and the U.S. government to push harder for better broadband connectivity outside of schools. The report also recommends that the federal government increase funding for broadband service at schools, libraries and community centers and for residential broadband.

“When the global economy demands workers, from store clerks to physicists to authors, to routinely use technology tools and resources, technology-rich learning environments are not optional in schools,” Fox said.

Karen Cator, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, praised the report, saying it gives schools and the U.S. government a solid goal for broadband speeds in 2014.

(With an add by Howard Solomon, ComputerWorld Canada)

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