It’s summer time! The days are longer, temperatures are rising, and schools across the nation are officially on vacation. But while the books are closed, not all work is done – especially for IT administrators at the K-12 level.
The public school system is changing at unprecedented speeds as new approaches to education transform learning. From virtual coursework and big data to wireless networks and real-time collaboration, educators can now access a broad array of technology to enrich school environments. But these same opportunities also create new challenges for K-12 IT networks as well as the administrators who manage them.
According to a report by Education Week, the U.S. public education system provides approximately one computer per five students. During the 2015 school year – for the first time ever – more standardized tests in grades five through 12 were administered electronically than in hard copy. It makes sense – technology-led classrooms empower teachers to address multiple learning styles, advance motivation and bring content to life.
A recent survey found nearly three-fourths of educators support using advanced solutions in the classroom regardless of the school’s financial or budget resources. And planning is well underway to increase adoption – with reports indicating two-thirds of K-12 teachers actively campaign for more (not less) technology resources.
But this new age of learning does not come without challenges. While tight budgets might seem to be the most obvious roadblock, there’s more going on behind the scenes. Many public schools are in fact held back by legacy IT infrastructures lacking the speed, reliability and computing power to support new investments.
According to EducationSuperhighway, 63% of schools report that they don’t possess the bandwidth necessary to create digital education. This means 6.5 million students cannot access required bandwidth to spur digital learning. It’s also reported a typical school district requires bandwidth growth of at least 2.6x to fuel a reliable digital education.
This puts network modernization at the top of any K-12 “to-do” list. For IT leaders in education, attention is mostly focused on two benchmarks in particular: bandwidth and reliability. Solutions such as online collaboration, interactive video and seamless Voice over IP (VoIP) require more functionality than ever before – yet it’s still estimated nearly half school districts surveyed couldn’t even afford the cost of accessing the Internet.
To standardize bandwidth requirements for school systems, the FCC set a broadband benchmark of 100 Mbps for every 1,000 students. Unfortunately, 25% of schools have only achieved 10% of this standard. More than 10% of districts also report their Internet providers are at full capacity. The facts are there. Only a modernized network can ensure seamless, high-speed and uninterrupted access that environments demand.
But typical districts rarely have the funds or resources to fully modernize. Full infrastructure upgrade often requires significant investments and training for internal IT staff. To avoid unnecessary capital and operational expenses, many school districts align with service providers to spur infrastructure growth. This approach allows districts to grow in manageable steps and slowly build to an immersive learning environment.
Leveraging a range of voice, network and cloud technologies from service providers, educational institutions can redefine the classroom and deploy new approaches to learning. Service provider relationships also make it possible for schools to make the required investment despite constrained budgets.
There are numerous ways K-12 environments are capitalizing on cloud-based applications and other advanced technologies. For example, cloud enables schools to avoid investments in expensive computers and costly student “buy-in” laptop programs. This reduction in capital expenditures saves budget without sacrificing learning quality. With applications available in the cloud, schools can also avoid lengthy periods of downtime that might sometimes impede learning processes.
Other opportunities include cloud-based textbooks and integrated course enrichment. Leveraging cloud for content helps students avoid the expense of purchasing multiple versions of text hard copies. It also means schools can access the most recent content without reinvesting in entirely new textbooks.
Cloud also makes it possible to level the playing field for smaller and economically disadvantaged school districts. In the absence of large budgets or deep internal IT talent, cloud provides an opportunity for learning opportunities once only available to larger institutions. And schools are responding. According to a recent study by Fordham University, 95% of school systems surveyed are actively engaged in cloud-based services to better serve students and families.
Still another next-generation technology benefitting schools is real-time collaboration. Students are often asked to work in groups to build new ideas and approaches. Unified Communications and Collaboration makes it easy for students to work with others across remote locations and in real-time. This fosters innovation and accelerated learning through interactive discussions and seamless file sharing. This approach also enhances standard curriculum by integrating remote educators into the standard learning environment. Examples include incorporating the expertise of authors, industry experts, and professors – through the power of videoconferencing in the classroom.
Embracing cloud, unified communications, and other advanced technologies also makes it possible for any school district to test and experiment with advanced teaching methods at an early stage. One such trend is “Flipped Learning” requiring students to engage interactively with teachers located outside the classroom prior to beginning assigned project work. This expanded access to knowledge not only powers advanced learning engagement, but also personalized instruction for each student.
This partner-led strategy is also often the best approach for districts that don’t necessarily have the budget or in-house resources to deploy and manage an internally run modernized infrastructure. Leveraging a cost-effective services model, schools can easily procure solutions based on leading vehicles such as the E-Rate Assistance Discount Program and MiCTA-driven contracts. Schools can also eliminate typical learning curves by tapping into the provider’s depth of resources and technology expertise specifically in K-12 environments.
The school year may be over, but the real work has just begun. To keep pace with an increasingly digital world, now is the time for K-12 institutions to begin planning for enhanced possibilities of learning. And that means focusing on aligning your IT network – TODAY.