FASTER Arkansas: Beebe Gathers Education, Tech Leaders To Evaluate K-12 Internet Needs

by Jordan King  on Monday, Jul. 29, 2013 12:00 am  

A map of which K-12 schools are operating at bandwidth speeds of 100 megabits per second for every 1,000 students and staff members. Each dot represents a public school acting as a bandwidth distribution point for nearby educational facilities. (Photo by Source: Arkansas Department of Education)

Franklin expects that the QDLS committee’s Aug. 14 meeting will revolve around one-, three- and five-year projections for public schools’ broadband demands that both educators and Internet service providers can agree on. The projections will likely be based on a combination of research on Arkansas’ in-classroom technology use and recommendations made by the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

SETDA is a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that, according to its website, works with state and national leaders to “leverage technology for learning.” In a 2012 study, the organization recommends that schools provide a minimum of 100 megabits per second of bandwidth for every 1,000 students and staff members for the 2014-15 school year. Put in perspective, the average home Internet speed in the U.S. is 7.4 Mbps.

The QDLS website indicates that few Arkansas schools will have access to the SETDA-recommended bandwidth speeds when the school year begins next month — although the SETDA recommendations are actually for the following year. Geoffrey Fletcher, SETDA’s deputy executive director, said the organization has not issued a bandwidth recommendation for the 2013-14 school year.

Data collected by the Arkansas Department of Information Systems show that, as of last month, only 12 percent of Arkansas’ K-12 “demarcation points” — public school facilities that distribute bandwidth to other nearby educational facilities — provide the recommended 100 Mbps of bandwidth for every 1,000 students and staff members.

Test Prep

One question that is being asked is whether Arkansas schools will have enough bandwidth to participate in an online student assessment that will be administered for the first time during the 2014-15 school year. The test, called PARCC — Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College & Careers — is designed to further the overall Common Core goal of a nationwide educational standard that supporters say will ensure that students are prepared for what lies after graduation. Opponents, meanwhile, are concerned that the emphasis on testing will result in homogenized education with teachers who base instruction solely on assessment results.

PARCC plans to release figures in October on the minimum bandwidth necessary to administer the test, but the organization has already voiced support for SETDA’s 2014-15 recommendation.

There are, however, indications that students will be able to take the test even if their schools do not have optimum bandwidth. Adrienne Gardner, vice president of STEM education at the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority and a member of the QDLS committee, said the state Department of Education has been investigating low-bandwidth options for administering the assessment and believes most schools would have sufficient broadband access to take advantage of the alternative options.

Testing, of course, isn’t the only use for broadband. At the July 10 QDLS meeting, Commissioner of Education Tom W. Kimbrell said the conversation surrounding Arkansas schools’ broadband needs may have been spurred by concerns about Common Core readiness, but that it has evolved into a discussion about the need to increase bandwidth to better teach kids.

SETDA has offered a pixilated picture of the “technology-rich learning environment” that schools can create if they follow the organization’s 2014-15 bandwidth recommendations. SETDA says students with sufficient access to broadband can participate in Internet-intensive classroom activities like using laptops to access Internet content, uploading audio and video to school networks, using electronic textbooks and going on “virtual field trips to interact with subject area experts” using videoconferencing technology.

Not all school officials are convinced that this digitally dominated classroom is an effective use of resources. Vance Gregory, director of technology for the Fort Smith School District, said he might be unorthodox in his concern that the benefits of increasing bandwidth in schools are currently outweighed by the costs of providing it.

Gregory called SETDA’s recommendation a “broad, generalized statement” that the organization “dreamt up” and published without providing suggestions for how schools can achieve the bandwidth speed in a cost-effective manner.



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