Bringing the Digital Classroom to Life
Taking full advantage of the Internet’s vast educational resources has been a challenge for school systems, partly because of the costs associated with acquiring and implementing the needed laptops and tablets. Even as network service providers have been able to increase connection speeds while reducing costs, schools have struggled with making the dream of “digital classrooms” a reality: a network of modern devices fully usable by students, un-tethered from a wall connection.
In the past five years, WiFi has grown dramatically in terms of performance—speeds delivered, users supported, and increased security—and reduction of cost. These WiFi developments have set the stage for the digital classroom, which has three primary components:
- User device
- Network infrastructure
- Internal connections (aka WiFi)
When fully recognized, it means that students can work seamlessly in their various classrooms, common areas, such as lunchrooms, gyms and libraries, and in their homes. It can also mean that homework is developed, sometimes in a collaborative manner, and stored in the cloud via capabilities provided by technologies like Google Docs™ or SharePoint®. This allows for real-time feedback from instructors, either in the classroom or around the globe. Schools can meet the needs of students with special needs by allowing them to access courses or modules that support challenges such as attention, dyslexia or audio processing.
The digital classroom is getting closer to fruition, thanks to the July 2014 Federal Communications Commission’s report and order, “Modernizing the E-Rate Program for Schools & Libraries.” The E-Rate program—borne out of the 1996 Telecom Act that helped ensure communications services are available to all citizens regardless of economic status and location—originally called for a subsidized dial-up connection for a single computer in each classroom.
When the program was nationally rolled out in 1998, the average speed available to access a very limited Internet was 100 kilobits per second, hardly surfing the World Wide Web! Though over $2.2 billion is annually distributed to schools, the program failed to keep up with rapidly changing technology: School districts complained that there was a major gap in what was eligible for reimbursement. Given the budgetary struggles of many school districts, even if they received the program’s maximum reimbursement of 85% for the “internal connections” (aka WiFi), IT staff was already constrained keeping up with the devices and software being deployed and managing security for their Local Area Networks (LANs).
The 2014 modernization order brought the program up to speed, so to speak, by addressing gaps in eligible technologies and removing some arcane ones. It also encouraged applicants not only to consider buying their own hardware, but also to seek providers for a managed solution. The updated E-Rate program that now provides grants for newer devices and infrastructure, as well as managed WiFi solutions. And in 2016, we are finally seeing the realization of the digital classroom—a technological environment that helps all students grow and succeed. One shining example of the digital classroom in action is Green Dot Public Schools. CIO Kevin Keelen led the school’s initiative to implement high bandwidth capacity and reliable network connectivity to all 23 campuses. With these enhancements, Green Dot Public Schools can now support thousands of computer devices, hundreds of simultaneous network connections, and empower educators to leverage cloud-based learning tools with minimal disruptions.
For those of you working with schools, what has been the greatest challenge in bringing the digital classroom to life? Tell us about it on Twitter: @SpectrumEnterprise.