Experts: Design broadband networks with tools that are ‘expandable, flexible’

A school district leader says planning and conducting a needs assessment are of utmost importance when scaling broadband connectivity to meet the demands of teaching and learning.

While discussing connectivity targets issued in 2016 by the State Educational Technology Directors Association, SETDA Deputy Executive Director Christine Fox agreed that effective planning and “network design” for current and future broadband implementation at the school and district level, including wireless connectivity, is crucial.

Such design is a key topic of SETDA’s recently updated The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning report, which advocates for designing “flexible” networks for learning, Fox said during a recent event to feature examples from the field.

James Pearcy, director of technology for the Harlingen (Texas) Consolidated Independent School District, spoke on this topic. He said the LEA’s primarily low socioeconomic student population of 18,700 students presented unique challenges in designing the path to robust network connectivity.

The local educational agency leverages federal E-Rate discounts to expand the district’s broadband infrastructure.

With an average E-Rate discount of 85 percent, HCISD ranks among the highest of E-Rate discount recipients. E-Rate discounts typically range from 20 to 90 percent of the costs of eligible services.

“We really have enjoyed leveraging that to help improve our network to meet the needs of our students and transform our learning environment,” Pearcy said.

Planning tools

In SY 2011-12, he said the district began exploring whether to implement a one-to-one initiative or “bring your own device.” To inform their decision, officials conducted technology surveys to gauge levels of connectivity and device access among students.

“I would have told you before the survey that because of our area’s economically disadvantaged [population], probably 50 percent or less of our students have a device or access to one at home,” he said.

“We found that 85 percent of our students actually had a mobile technology device that they could bring to school,” he continued. “We were a little liberal with that definition, and phones were by far the device that they had that they could rely on. Even as far down as elementary school, we found that 70 to 75 percent of students could bring a connected smartphone to school.”

Also to his surprise, he said, was that 85 percent of students have internet connectivity at home — mostly through cellphones that have hotspot capabilities — thanks to low-cost cellphone providers in the area, he noted.

Surveys, he added, proved to be “a great planning tool … to help us make some of our decisions.” Community input, focus groups, and the state’s long-range community plan were also taken into consideration, he added.

Based on feedback, rather than a one-to-one program, the district chose to adopt a “High-Access BYOD” program and instituted a three-year phase plan starting in high school.

In 2013, Superintendent Arturo Cavazos developed a plan to improve schooling with digital learning as a cornerstone, Pearcy explained.

The plan’s areas that are of current focus include:

  • Creating and expanding technology rich learning environments that empower students to maximize their learning experiences;
  • Developing an instructional technology support team focused on incorporating technology into the curriculum; and
  • Infusing technology into the curriculum to enhance classroom instruction and learning for all students.

Upgrading Wi-Fi

In addition to transitioning to BYOD, the LEA sought to bolster its Wi-Fi network, Pearcy noted.

“Prior to the BYOD rollout, we did have Wi-Fi access, but it was only about 1 access point per four classrooms; it was an older system,” he said. “As we rolled out the BYOD program, we upgraded this and then intent of that upgrade program was to get us to one access point for every classroom.”

They chose the Cisco Meraki MR42 cloud-based controller Wi-Fi system, which he said “gave us better controls and was much easier to manage so we could be more responsive to the needs of our campuses.”

“We also put in more access points in public areas like offices, cafeterias, gyms, etc., to make sure we had coverage during large group sessions or events,” he added.

Though the high schools Wi-Fi upgrades were funded through a local Tax Ratification Election, E-Rate funds were used to update middle and elementary school campuses, he explained.

They started at 11 Mbps to elementary schools and 1 Gbps to secondary schools, and plan to increase to 1 Gbps to elementary schools and 5 Gbps to secondary schools in SY 2017-18.

“As you design your networks you need to choose products and tools that are expandable, easily upgradable, and flexible so that you can upgrade them because the demand is ever-growing,” he recommended. “Transformation is happening on many different levels here at Harington CISD and having that robust network, planning for it, and putting it to bear to be able to provide the resources and the access that our teachers and students need is of vast importance.”

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

Copyright 2017© LRP Publications, Education Daily®