Monday, January 20, 2014

Rural Broadband and Education - Part 2

How much bandwidth is enough?

This is a graph showing the average amount of Internet bandwidth consumed in an average week by the 42,000+ students and 2,000+ instructional and administrative staff in the 14 ECMECC member school districts that I work with.

If you look closely, you can see that we are using about 1.0gbps (that's 1000 megabits per second) during peak times. Eight years ago, we served most of these same schools with 10mbps - that's 1% of what we are using now -- and is similar to the speed of a "basic" DSL or Cable connection in a non-metro community. Today, our schools use 100 times the bandwidth they did eight years ago on a daily basis. And... the number continues to climb. So, what are students and staff doing with all this bandwidth, and what is enough?

There are people who will have us believe that kids are watching videos, playing games and engaging in social media activities while in school. I would say that they are absolutely right, students, are, indeed, doing all of those things. They would say this is a waste of time and bandwidth. I would say it is the way students learn today. Recently, a letter to the editor appeared in our local paper from a writer who believed we should eliminate computers (and presumably mobile devices - though they didn't say that specifically) from our schools since they detract from what they believe is the best way to learn. At a recent meeting I attended organized by Senator Matt Schmit, a participant suggested that people in rural areas and communities don't need "that much" bandwidth since their kids will just stream movies, play games and spend all their time on "that Facebook." Once again, I contend that this is now how people access this kind of content and communicate. It would be like going back 20 years and saying some people don't need a VCR or a phone since they will just play movies and talk.

Think back 10 years... How many places could you find in your area to rent a DVD (or buy one)? Today, how many are there? While rental stores have been replaced to some degree by Netflix (mail-order) and services like Redbox, there is no disputing that the options for renting and buying physical content (DVDs) are diminishing and will likely vanish in the not-to-distant future. The same is true for music (CDs). Now, music and video content is streamed online, and it takes a robust Internet connection to get good quality. Of course, that's entertainment. What about education?

Again, take yourself back 20 years or so and think about how you "learned." Current events information may have come from newspapers, broadcast television or local radio. Remember the trip to the public library or a bookstore to find a book about something that you wanted to learn about? Remember when you needed a manual to figure out how to replace the headlight in your car? In school, you used textbooks that may have been published as long as 10 years or more prior to your use and films that were produced in years gone by.

Today, the number of daily newspapers being published in the United States is down 25% from 20 years ago and readership numbers have fallen off exponentially. Broadcast television and radio is struggling to keep viewers and listeners and has less and less unbiased "news" content. Physical books and manuals have been replaced by ebooks and videos. Heck, most encyclopedia companies don't make encyclopedias anymore (though World Book still does!). We don't access information or learn like that anymore. All of this content has shifted online and will continue to do so.

Accessing that information takes bandwidth in larger and larger amounts. There is a seemingly endless amount of rubbish on YouTube, but it is also the first place I go now when I want to know how to fix or do something. News organizations use YouTube to post content and there are just as many educational videos as cat videos (OK, maybe almost as many as cat videos!) See the Khan Academy for just one example of educational content on YouTube. Without high-speed, affordable Internet access students and families are immediately at a disadvantage. What is enough? I don't know, but I do know that a large number of Minnesotan's (and I'm sure others in the US) don't have adequate access to learn and live in the world of Internet delivered content. People living in high-density urban areas keep getting improved Internet speeds while those in rural areas pay more for less and see little speed improvement. As I said in my previous post, it is our new digital divide and we need to find a solution.

Up Next: How increased bandwidth fundamentally changed the education environment of a school district and how it could change a families life.

No comments:

Post a Comment