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)

While legislators have been getting an earful on the pros and cons of “Common Core,” bureaucrats and businessmen are trying to determine whether Arkansas has the infrastructure to implement the national education standards on schedule.

Members of FASTER Arkansas — Gov. Mike Beebe’s new task force whose acronym stands for Fast Access for Students, Teachers & Economic Results — and its sister committee, the Quality Digital Learning Study, are working to determine just how much broadband Internet is needed by schools overall and what will be necessary to participate in Common Core testing, a controversial piece of the standardization initiative pushed by the National Governors Association.

The Arkansas Board of Education adopted the Common Core standards in 2010, legislators followed suit in 2011 and phasing in of the standards began in 2011-12. Testing under the new initiative begins in the 2014-15 school year.

The question may sound simple — do the schools have enough bandwidth or not? — but, of course, it isn’t as easy as counting whether there are as many desks as there are students. Preliminary findings by the Arkansas Department of Education indicate that a vast majority of school districts have Internet speeds that aren’t adequate, or won’t be by the fall of 2014, while telecom execs say the deficiencies won’t require drastic actions to solve.

“Certainly, no single provider serves every customer in the state, but through the combined assets of all the providers across Arkansas, there is ample broadband capacity to meet the needs of our schools, businesses, and citizens,” Ed Drilling, president of AT&T Arkansas and a member of FASTER Arkansas, said in an email.

Drilling also suggested that there is sufficient broadband infrastructure in the state serviced by ISPs that can meet the needs of the state’s schools.

“There are many schools that do not have the bandwidth to meet current or future needs,” Drilling said in the email. “But in most cases, it is not due to a lack of fiber or infrastructure.

The state has 150,000 miles of fiberoptic cable, he said, citing information from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and comparing it with the 100,000 miles of public roads in the state.

“While there are some schools that have not yet purchased the bandwidth they may need to meet current or future needs, providers like AT&T are ready to provide it,” Drilling said.

At a price, of course. And that’s another point of contention: Is the additional bandwidth worth the cost, which can be tens of thousands of dollars a year?

Ed Franklin, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges, chairs the Quality Digital Learning Study committee. Franklin said he and the committee’s 15 other members will spend the next two months gathering data from a number of sources on the schools’ broadband needs, after which a consensus will be reached on which figures are most accurate.

How Fast?

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.

The Arkansas Department of Education and some individual school districts, including Fort Smith, qualify for financial assistance for technology expenses, including bandwidth, through the federal E-Rate program. E-Rate is used by ADE to provide an average of 5 kilobits of bandwidth per second for each student in a district — a fraction of SETDA’s recommended bandwidth for 2014-15. This ADE bandwidth is distributed to districts for free through the Arkansas Public School Computer Network. Schools can then get reimbursement from E-Rate of 20 to 90 percent on additional bandwidth purchases, depending on the district’s poverty level.

Prior to E-Rate reimbursements, for instance, the Rogers School District currently pays $5,800 each month for 500 Mbps of bandwidth from Windstream Corp., according to Cris Carter, the district’s chief information officer. And, in the Common Core future, that’s not going to be enough. Rogers will need almost three times its current bandwidth to meet the SETDA recommendations; Fort Smith will need to add another 1,095 Mbps over the next year.

Gregory said he expects his district to meet the goal, but he says it is only a perceived need that is being met — not an actual one.

“The Internet is like money: the more you have, the more you’ll use,” Gregory said. He explained that the Internet should be considered supplemental and that a successful educational environment depends more on skilled teachers than technology.

QDLS Chairman Ed Franklin offered a similar maxim, but to the opposite effect. “If you don’t have a tool, then you’re not using it,” he said.

Franklin said that a combination of adequate broadband Internet access and faculty development could lead to a greater appreciation for a technologically advanced classroom.

 

 

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