By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
A great many people are agitating for broadband in schools.1 They insist that our young people will not be prepared for the future without it. If you look at these people carefully, you’ll mostly find technophiles and members of companies making online learning products.
[Disclaimer: I am the president of a company that makes an online learning product.]
They are taking the easy way out. Schools have greater needs than broadband Internet access. Eventually they’ll all have it as the broadband wave sweeps our nation. (I’m writing in the U.S.) However, has anyone really assessed the necessity for really high bandwidth, 1 Gbps and above? If so, I haven’t seen it.
Consider what’s really important for schools to have. Number one is good teachers. Broadband has nothing to do with that. Number two is good leader/administrators. Again, no broadband here. Somewhere well down the list is new technology. But, what technology?
To know what the requirements will be, we must have a good crystal ball. We don’t have that so think about what’s available today rather than attempt to predict the future. You can find plenty of interesting online learning options. What are their bandwidth requirements? Leave out non-learning options such as students downloading the latest horror flick or porn movie. Consider only the requirements for learning software.
How many students at one time will be using the Internet for learning? Maybe half. What fraction of the time on the Internet actually involves downloading media? Media are the major bandwidth users. Now, average out the bandwidth for everyone. You’ll probably get a smaller number than you thought you would.
Yet, this analysis is insufficient. Even if you have the Internet bandwidth, you must get from the WAN to the school’s LAN and to the student. That’s school infrastructure. Schools must have decent servers and wired, not wireless, connections to every classroom. Each classroom must have a high-speed wireless router that can handle up to 40 computers or whatever that classroom is designed for. Many schools think they have great Internet access but fall short on the infrastructure.
Learning software from the Internet more and more uses high-definition images and videos that require substantial bandwidth to deliver quickly without loss of quality. Students in a classroom will become difficult if the delays are more than a couple of seconds. These are reasons often cited for requiring high bandwidth broadband access for schools.
How about a different approach. Put those bandwidth-intensive media on the school’s server, either by licensing them from vendors or by caching them for reuse. If these files are available locally, then the Internet (wide-area network) speeds can be much lower. The internal (local-area network) speeds must be quite high, but that is true even without local storage.
With this simple change to using the Internet, schools make a small additional investment in servers and save lots of money on Internet bandwidth. They still must have highly reliable connections, just not at such high bandwidth and cost.
So, when you hear someone asking for broadband for schools, ask what they mean by broadband. If it’s reliability and a rational amount of bandwidth, that’s fine. Many schools lack even that and definitely should have it. If it’s huge bandwidth in the gigabits per second range, then tell them that you can find better ways to spend budget dollars.
1 Jessica Rosenworcel and Mark Edwards, “Giving Our Kids a Chance to Compete in the Global Economy Means High-Speed Broadband Capacity,” Huff Post, 24 July 2013. “Fact Sheet: Update of E-Rate for Broadband in Schools and Libraries,” FCC, 19 July 2013. Paul Barbagallo, “FCC Begins Writing Rules to Bring Ultrafast Broadband to Most Schools in Five Years,” Bloomberg BNA, 22 July 2013. “Examining School and Library Broadband Connectivity: A Connected Nation Policy Brief,” Connected Nation, 19 July 2013. “AT&T Helps Schools Meet Bandwidth Surge From Common Core State Standards,” CBS Detroit, 16 July 2013.
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