By 2019, nearly two-thirds of K–12 students will use two or more devices at school. Will districts be ready?
While school systems have made significant strides in boosting broadband connectivity and deploying Wi-Fi in classrooms, they continue to face affordability and digital equity challenges.
The Consortium for School Networking’s 2016 Annual Infrastructure Survey focuses on the current state of infrastructure required to support digital learning. Co-sponsored by the School Superintendents Association and education marketing firm MDR, the survey was conducted last year and features responses from administrators and technology leaders in school districts throughout the United States.
“Districts are making real progress in supporting modern technology infrastructure,” said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger in announcing the report. “However, it remains clear that more work and investment are needed over the long run to address the digital equity challenge of today and provide robust broadband connectivity for all students in and outside of school.”
Costs Limit Schools from Expanding Broadband
Encouragingly, 68 percent of districts fully meet the minimum internet bandwidth requirements set by the Federal Communications Commission, up from a mere 19 percent in 2013. What’s more, in 80 percent of school systems, at least three-fourths of the schools have achieved the short-term goal of 100 megabits per second per 1,000 students. Those gains have been seen uniformly across urban, suburban and rural districts.
On the downside, districts are largely unprepared to meet the growing demand for broadband to support additional devices, online assessments and digital content. For the most part, schools lag behind the FCC’s long-term broadband goal of 1 gigabit per second per 1,000 students; only 15 percent of districts fully meet that ambitious requirement. Why?
One big culprit is cost. For the fourth year in a row, school systems consider ongoing recurring expenses to be the greatest barrier to robust connectivity. That number increased from 46 percent in 2015 to 57 percent in 2016.
While nearly half of respondents pay less than $5 monthly per Mbps per 1,000 students, that price is harder to come by in rural districts, where affordable connectivity is scarce. A full 43 percent of respondents in rural areas report paying between $5 and $49.99 per Mbps, and 23 percent pay more than $50 per Mbps.
The good news: Across all district types, the percentage of school systems paying high costs for internet and wide area network (WAN) connections dropped from 32 percent in 2014 to 16 percent in 2016.
To stretch bandwidth and dollars, district IT leaders should consider deploying a proxy server or WAN acceleration, or tapping into a group buying consortium that can negotiate more attractive rates for broadband.
Digital Equity Outside of School Remains an Issue
The other ongoing challenge districts face: the so-called homework gap. Students need pervasive access to technology outside of the classroom to enrich their educational experience. Roughly 7 in 10 teachers assign homework that requires home broadband. But FCC data show that about one-third of all households don’t subscribe to broadband service at any speed due to cost or lack of interest.
Clearly, students who don’t have internet access outside of school are at a disadvantage. And nearly half of the district leaders surveyed ranked digital equity or lack of broadband outside of school as a high priority. That said, 63 percent also lacked strategies for providing off-campus connectivity.
What can district leaders do to promote equity of access and opportunity? First, academic leaders, teachers, faculty and staff should educate families about the importance of broadband and make them aware of the FCC Digital Lifeline service, which can provide funds for home broadband access to disadvantaged families. The broadband opportunity first became available in December 2016, and many eligible families may not be aware of the program.
Second, consider providing broadband in places outside of school. Some districts provide public Wi-Fi in school parking lots, athletic fields and even on school buses that transport students to sporting events and afterschool activities. Other school systems offer portable Wi-Fi hotspots for students to take home. These are all remarkable opportunities to help students learn outside of class.
Finally, consult with community leaders and local or national businesses about forging public-private partnerships to address digital equity. By putting our heads together and tapping technology’s full potential, we can improve equity of access and opportunity, thereby ensuring that all students have the resources they need to succeed, in school and at home.