Institute News

Need for Speed: Is your school fast enough for digital learning?

Among a number of challenges for those providing new media learning tools and sites is the ability to stream and play video seamlessly. When the video plays, no one notices. When the video does not work, it frustrates educators, students, and educational-content providers; this frustration becomes all the more understandable with the increasing ubiquity of instant video outside the formal school environment. Traffic Shaping is the practice of regulating network data transfer to ensure a certain level of quality of service or performance. Lack of availability, poor quality, disruption, reduction, and limitation of service are difficult downsides of lack of access to broadband, and pose a challenge for providers of sites and resources that are rich with video content. For example, IWitness video is served at approximately 480 Kbps which is approximately the equivalent of a video one might capture on their smartphone. When 20 students in one classroom are using multiple videos simultaneously, the combined traffic requires approximately 10Mbps. This bit rate needs to be sustained. For students using IWitness to achieve the learning outcomes successfully—outcomes that include digital, media, and information literacy capacity and disciplinary content—the audio-visual content needs to be accessible and stable. In short, it needs to play.

In the following article, Evan Marwell, CEO and co-founder of EducationSuperHighway, addresses the scope of this problem in the United States and gives insight to the current barriers that need to be removed in order to be more successful with bringing digital media into every classroom.

We anticipate and work toward a future when teachers and students have regular and consistent access to broadband at a high enough level to allow such ease of use. When technical concerns such as broadband access are no longer significant hurdles, students everywhere can continue to participate directly in their own learning in active, collaborative, and relevant ways, and educators will be able to continue to focus on the innovation, creativity, and learning outcomes of their students.

-Kim Simon, managing director, USC Shoah Foundation

By Evan Marwell

Digital learning is transforming education, and online video is at the center of this transformation. Video from organizations like the USC Shoah Foundation, Discovery Education and Khan Academy can give every student access to the curriculum they need, regardless of whether their school offers a particular course. It also allows our best teachers to instruct millions of students, not just the 30 to 60 who attend their class.

Teachers and students are already using video in their classrooms to enhance and personalize the learning experience. Unfortunately, their ability to do so is often constrained by a lack of sufficient internet access. A typical video stream requires 1 to 1.5 Mbps of bandwidth. When being used to personalize the learning experience, this implies that a typical classroom requires 45Mbps, and a “digital learning school” will require more than 100Mbps. In contrast, a typical K-12 school has only 10Mbps.

According to the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, 80 percent of American schools are not ready for digital learning—an issue even more prevalent in low-income and rural schools. To fix this, we need to upgrade the internet infrastructure of America’s schools so that each has 100Mbps of internet access and modern Wi-Fi networks. 

EducationSuperHighway has identified four “gaps” that need to be addressed in order to upgrade the internet access of America’s K-12 schools for digital learning: an information gap, an expertise gap, a procurement gap, and a policy gap. 

Evan MarwellThe first issue is that we don’t know what the internet infrastructure is at every school in America. Consequently, educators don’t know that digital learning is possible and policymakers don’t know if schools are ready for the next-generation assessments, which are set to launch in 2014–15. To address this gap, EducationSuperHighway has launched the National School Speed Test in conjunction with the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Education, and more than 50 national, state, and local organizations. The goal is to get 1 million educators and students to take one minute to test the speed of their school’s internet access. The results will help superintendents and policymakers to identify which schools need to be upgraded.

The second issue is that networking requires highly specialized expertise, and few schools have the resources for a dedicated network technician. The typical school tech-support person is overwhelmed simply trying to support the computers, iPads, and other devices on the school network. To fill this gap, EducationSuperHighway is creating the Education Geek Squad, which will help schools design, implement and monitor state-of- the-art networks.

The third issue that we must address is lowering the cost of internet access for schools. Today, despite being one of the largest customers for Internet access in the country (spending nearly $1.5 billion collectively), the typical school pays four times more than it should for its internet access. This is because our schools buy as 14,000 independent districts, which means they are not taking advantage of the benefits of volume purchasing. To address this, EducationSuperHighway is creating a Broadband Buying Consortia that will enable schools to pool their purchasing and encourage greater numbers of vendors to bid for school’s business. In some states, this approach has led to a 90 percent drop in the price of internet access —a result EducationSuperHighway hopes to replicate across the nation.

The final issue centers on reforming the FCC’s E-Rate program, which was responsible for ensuring that every school was connected to the internet. Now, the program needs to ensure that every school is ready for digital learning. To do that, EducationSuperHighway is working with the FCC to find ways to maximize the effects of the $2 to $3 billion per year that E-Rate provides to schools and libraries.

The good news is that all of what EducationSuperHighway is proposing has been done before. States have created central networking groups to support the internet infrastructure in their K-12 schools. Districts have formed regional buying consortia to lower the cost of internet access, and the FCC has introduced reforms that have begun to address the capacity issues which hold back digital learning. Combine this with the fact that no new technology is needed to solve this problem and EducationSuperHighway believes it can upgrade U.S. schools for digital learning before the end of the decade.

To find out more, visit www.educationsuperhighway.org. To test your school’s internet access, visit www.schoolspeedtest.org.

Evan Marwell is the CEO and co-founder of EducationSuperHighway. Over the last 25 years, he has been an entrepreneur, starting companies in the telecommunications, software, hedge fund and consumer retailing industries. He has served on the board of several for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Marwell was most recently the chairman of the Golden Gate Chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization and is currently the president of the Board of Trustees at the Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco. He has now turned his entrepreneurial energies toward improving education.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of PastForward, USC Shoah Foundation's digest.