Sunday, January 26, 2014

Rural Broadband and Education - Part 3

Took a few days off - this takes more time than I'd like it too!

I said after the last post that this time, I would talk about how increased bandwidth changed the environment in a school. In May 2006, I took a job as the technology director for ISD 15 in St. Francis, MN. At the time, the school district of nearly 6,000 students, with six school buildings and several other service facilities was served by two T-1 circuits. That is the equivalent of about 3mbps. Now, 2006 was quite some time ago, but at the same time, the 10 school districts in ECMECC shared a gigabit fiber network and 200mbps of Internet bandwidth.

The fist thing I did in my new district was to go on a listening tour to hear from all district administrators, department chairs and program directors. I wanted to know what was great about technology in their school and what they saw as issues. You can probably guess that I heard about many more issues than I did positives. Over and again, I heard about all the things they couldn't do because the technology department told them there wasn't enough bandwidth to run the student information system, finance/payroll systems and many educational tools at the same time. The district had a subscription to a popular streaming video service but staff was told they couldn't stream the videos during class, instead having to schedule videos to download after hours. The service hardly ever was used. They were told that they should not expect to use Internet resources with a class in a computer lab as they would probably not work. Teachers complained about slow access to Internet resources and they could not use the electronic grade book and other features that were part of their student information system. Technology committee meetings, I heard, were frustrating exercises and the technology department and staff seemed constantly at odds.

Within a few months, the St. Francis district was connected to the ECMECC network and had access to as much Internet bandwidth as they could use. During the first part of the 06-07 school year, the bandwidth use climbed to nearly 10mbps - which doesn't sound like much by today's standard, but was over 3 times what they had access to only months earlier. While not all technology issues were solved by this, the conversations with staff and administration changed almost overnight. Technology planning went into full swing and the technology committee talked about what they could do. We implemented use of streaming video in the classroom and for athletic teams. Teachers began using Internet resources with their classes in labs. Projectors and whiteboards started showing up so resources could be used in classrooms. Discussion began about wireless access. Everyone was excited about technology in the school, a far cry from where they had been only a few months earlier.

I left the district only two years later, but the district is now a full member of ECMECC and has numerous technology initiatives that rival that of most school districts. For example, the district has a "bring-your-own-device" policy that sees thousands of mobile devices attached to their network every day. Students use the devices for course work and research. Technology goals set during the technology planning process are reached. The district is using interactive video conferencing to take students on virtual trips around the world to participate in interactive learning experiences. See this link for a story about IVC at St. Francis from WCCO-TV. Implementing unlimited bandwidth was a simple change that fundamentally altered the educational technology conversation throughout the district.

Up Next: This is an example of how things changed for a school district once they had no data cap (in this case related to speed). I believe data caps in place for many of the choices rural residents and business have for broadband create a similar situation where conversations are more about what can't be done than what can. We'll take a look at that issue next time. - Stay warm!

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