Digital dilemma

Schools can’t take full advantage of the internet if they don’t have the broadband, but it’s not yet clear how best to get it to them – or how much it will cost

Inside those two orange wires beside Kendal Wells' shoulder and the yellow wire in front of him are fiber optic strands thinner than a human hair. Because of those wires, the Cabot School District has more than two gigabits of broadband access – enough to more than meet its needs. Many districts do not have that capability. Making sure they do is becoming one of the biggest issues in Arkansas public education.
Inside those two orange wires beside Kendal Wells’ shoulder and the yellow wire in front of him are fiber optic strands thinner than a human hair. Because of those wires, the Cabot School District has more than two gigabits of broadband access – enough to more than meet its needs. Many districts do not have that capability. Making sure they do is becoming one of the biggest issues in Arkansas public education.

By Steve Brawner
Note to readers, particularly subscribers – This is not a typical blog post but is instead a magazine cover story that appeared in Report Card, which I publish with the Arkansas School Boards Association. Just wanted to warn you.

Kendal Wells, technology director of the Cabot School District, and B.J. Brooks, director of instructional technology, show off a rack of flashing computer hardware in a walk-in closet near the district’s boardroom. It’s not that impressive a place, really, and the hardware isn’t all that new.

But this, Wells said, is “grand central station.” He points to two orange insulated wires, each containing a glass fiber optic cable thinner than a human hair. Each can carry 1 gigabit of information per second. Two more yellow wires increase the district’s total bandwidth to 2.2 gigabits per second, more than double what the district needs on its busiest days – for now. Because of that bandwidth, the entire district, 17 schools across Cabot, is a sprawling hotspot. Each classroom has its own wireless access point, ensuring no teacher ever has to worry about a slow connection or being bumped offline in the middle of a lesson.

“We can buy all these Chromebooks or iPads or desktops or anything else that we want, but if we don’t have the bandwidth, that really big pipe to deliver the information to the classroom where the teacher can use it, then it does us no good to have the devices,” Wells said.

The Cabot School District serves a growing, prosperous community. It’s centrally located on flat terrain half an hour northeast of Little Rock. Wells heads an IT department staff of 14.

In other words, Cabot is perhaps the perfect district to marry broadband and instruction. But what about less wealthy, isolated rural districts in the Ozarks? What about districts in the Delta far from population centers? How can Arkansas ensure those students receive an education that’s equitable to the one offered students in Cabot?

Those are questions with which education policymakers are grappling, and they don’t have much time to find the answers. Online testing for the Common Core is supposed to begin at the end of the upcoming school year, and a pilot test has already occurred. Last year, policymakers realized many schools do not have the bandwidth to perform the testing effectively. More important is what’s happening – or is failing to happen – in the classroom. Students and teachers without adequate bandwidth are missing out on a rich variety of instructional resources. It’s now possible for students in even the most far-flung districts to take classes not available to anyone just a few years ago. In fact, under the Digital Learning Act of 2013, every Arkansas student entering the ninth grade must complete an online class in order to graduate. But for many districts and many parts of Arkansas, the pipe just isn’t big enough.

To address this problem, a group of education policymakers, legislators and telecommunications providers known as the Quality Digital Learning Study (QDLS) Committee has been meeting since June 2013 as a result of the Digital Learning Act. On May 6, the committee released a report describing the state’s lack of broadband access and possible solutions.

 

“D” for “Digital”

The report makes clear the situation’s urgency. Arkansas received a “D” for digital learning opportunities in the 2013 “Digital Learning Now” report from the Foundation for Excellence in Education – an improvement over the “F” it received the year before, but still not nearly good enough. A 2011 survey by the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators found that 84.5 percent of respondents were forced to restrict access to useful sites because of a lack of bandwidth. The state has invested almost $160 million in vendor costs since 1992 on the Arkansas Public School Computer Network (APSCN). That network provides a bandwidth of five kilobits per second per student. In comparison, the State Educational Technology Directors Association recommends a minimum of 100 kilobits per second for each student and staff member in 2014-15.

Schools can and do supplement the connectivity they’re getting through APSCN. According to the report, 71 percent of bandwidth statewide is purchased by districts from local providers. But local costs vary widely. A 2013 survey by the Arkansas Department of Education found that the broadband cost of a megabit ranged from a low of $1.20 to a high of $280 depending on the location of the school and the service provided.

So what’s next? The report recommends that Arkansas public schools be allowed to connect to the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network, a statewide fiber optics system currently used by universities and medical providers. ARE-ON is currently off-limits to schools because Act 1050 of 2011 prohibits state and municipal entities from providing broadband, voice, data, video and wireless services – the exceptions being emergency services, law enforcement, higher education, and health care providers. That act was passed thanks to the efforts of Arkansas’ private broadband companies, who were spending billions of dollars laying an infrastructure across the state. “We made business decisions based on the fact that we did not have government competing with us, so that was the rationale in 2011 when that law was passed,” said Len Pitcock, chairman of the Arkansas Cable Association, during the May 6 release of the report.

According to the report, ARE-ON is the only one of 42 public fiber optic networks nationwide connecting to Internet2 that does not serve K-12 schools. Internet2 is a consortium serving academia, researchers, industry and government. The report says ARE-ON has 380 gigabits of unused bandwidth.

Gov. Mike Beebe expressed support for the ARE-ON solution through a press release issued by his office June 13, saying, “Whatever the reasons were behind the exemption passed in 2011, it has become clear that Act 1050 has impeded our progress in developing a reliable and efficient broadband infrastructure for Arkansas students. Giving K-12 schools the opportunity to access ARE-ON will provide better online availability for our students and save our taxpayers money.”

The report also recommends centralized management of statewide network support services, including network construction. Buying services in bulk instead of through individual school districts would reduce costs and increase scalability, allowing districts to have higher speeds during peak periods such as statewide testing, the report states.

 

How much?

No one knows how much any of this will cost. On July 7, the Arkansas Legislative Council, which is the group of legislators who meet when the full Legislature is not in session, approved a $71,500 contract with the consultants Picus Odden & Associates to try to develop cost figures.

The report encourages the state to better utilize E-rate, a program that collects fees through telecommunications providers to reimburse schools and libraries for up to 90 percent of the cost of obtaining Internet and other telecommunications services. One hundred percent of Arkansas public schools, not counting public charter schools, have participated in the program during the last five years. Schools and libraries have been provided almost $205 million in discounts during the past 15 years, and the average discount was 79 percent in 2012-13. The Cabot School District, for example, receives a 59 percent discount off the $13,500 per month it would pay for the broadband it is purchasing on its own outside of APSCN. But Arkansas has lagged some states, such as Oklahoma and Louisiana, in obtaining funding.

Most of the lines currently used by ARE-ON involve long-term leases with private telecommunications providers. Those providers do not support the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee’s findings and abstained from voting on the report. They say the report doesn’t provide cost estimates or identify a funding mechanism, that the issue hasn’t been sufficiently analyzed, and that its recommendations conflict with state law.

To communicate their message, telecommunications providers last year formed the Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids. Jordan Johnson, the group’s spokesperson, said ARE-ON would be “a redundant network” because the industry has already laid a fiber optics infrastructure that, if utilized, could serve most Arkansas students now. For whatever reasons, schools simply aren’t utilizing the service. Johnson said many educators have mistakenly assumed that ARE-ON will somehow be free.

“Regardless of what system is in play, there’s going to be a cost associated with getting broadband, period,” he said. “What you want is something that’s the most fair and efficient and productive way of getting the service, and my coalition believes that that’s through the private sector.”

The industry wants to be a part of the solution, he said.

“Collectively, the providers have spent billions of dollars in this infrastructure to provide accessibility to virtually all Arkansans, whether it be in the public sector, private sector, in the educational sector, the nonprofit sector,” he said. “Collectively, we have the state covered, and there is a tremendous amount of access there. And we think we can do this much more efficiently.”

When the QDLS Committee’s report was unveiled May 6, Rep. Charlotte Vining Douglas, R-Alma, told Chairman Ed Franklin that her school districts were telling her that access was available, but they had not been willing to pay for it. Franklin said some schools don’t have access to broadband and others aren’t using the access they have. “The reality is probably the school districts that are using it the least see the least need for it,” he said.

The report points to the need for broadband connectivity using an example from the Batesville School District. Clint Lucy, director of information technology, said students were taking an online placement assessment in a credit recovery class when the network shut down, forcing them to redo the test from the beginning. “In years past, a school would often be told their bandwidth wasn’t being managed properly if things were creepy-crawly slow,” he was quoted saying. “There’s a lot of truth in that – bandwidth management is critical, but our need for bandwidth has outgrown our ability to provide it. We have reached critical mass.”

That’s not been a problem in Cabot since December, when capacity was increased to 2.2 gigs from a relatively paltry 200. At the time, the district was bumping its head on its bandwidth ceiling. Sometimes the internet would slow to a crawl, which was unacceptable for students who have grown up in a digital world. Danielle Dinges, an educational technologist who teaches computer skills at Cabot Middle School, said speeds varied according to the weather. The internet shut down on her one day near the beginning of the year. According to Wells, the district doubled its internet usage within about a week of expanding its capacity.

The district has purchased 1,700 Chromebooks, but according to Tammy Tucker, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, it’s not in a hurry to become a one-to-one district where every student is assured of having a digital device. Buying everyone a laptop or tablet would be a huge expense in a district Cabot’s size, and besides, Tucker explained, “I think if you just give kids a computer without developing a plan and really knowing what your goals are for that computer, then you’ve put the cart before the horse. … I think before you put those in the hands of kids and teachers, you have a plan and a vision for what you want to accomplish.”

The district and the school board have made commitments not only in infrastructure but in training. Brooks, the director of instructional technology, has written a curriculum that starts students keyboarding in kindergarten and using Google Docs by the third grade. By the time they leave middle school, they’re proficient in the technology. Teachers have been trained on the devices since 2009. All attend a required three-hour summer course, Cabot Technology Academy for Teachers.

“Five years ago, we started out, ‘This is what the right mouse button does. This is what a shortcut is,’” Brooks said. “And in this last year, we were teaching them Google Docs, how to integrate their curriculum, and how to share documents with their students.”

The results could be seen in Deana Davis’ pre-AP eighth grade English class. On the day of a visit by a reporter, students were developing a fictional character who would have lived alongside Anne Frank, the author of the famous World War II diary. What would life be like? What would she eat for breakfast? What kind of games would she play? Students worked independently and had the power to display their work on screen in front of the class – a sharing of power that can be an adjustment for a teacher. But it has proved a powerful incentive. Students think more carefully about their work if their peers will see it, instructors have found.

Before she started teaching the class, Davis, the teacher, told Brooks that she was “technologically Amish.” Brooks helped her develop her curriculum and served as a sounding board for ideas. On the day of the visit, she enthusiastically described how the broadband was being used.

“You saw her a while ago,” Brooks said. “She was flitting back and forth between apps, between windows, giving kids directions on how to use different apps, sharing documents, using YouTube, just bam, bam, bam, bam with no hesitation. That’s incredible growth.”

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