The number one challenge facing technology in education is not pedagogy or access to devices — the number one challenge facing technology use in British Columbia’s schools is bandwidth.
I was looking back at a presentation I gave in 2002, when I said, “We should think of Internet access like curbside garbage pick-up. It should be regular and something we can depend on.” A decade plus later not much has really changed for me. I simply expect when I load a website, open my email or launch a video, for that to simply work. In the past decade, my home access and my mobile phone access have improved to a point where I almost never worry about access or speed. The access in our schools is not so perfect.
British Columbia does lead the country in Internet connectivity. Students increasingly have their own devices at school, and very often more than one. And, how they use these devices is quickly changing — no longer are they just consuming content, they are content creators. Even five years ago we lamented the spikes in bandwidth use at lunch and after school as students saw Internet use at school largely as a social tool. Current data tells a different story. Spikes in Internet use are now during class hours and less use before/at lunch and after school. Our teachers and students are trying to do exciting things with their digital access. We are seeing a boom in one-to-one initiatives, more etextbooks, inquiry initiatives in a digital space, video streaming and collaboration online between schools, districts and countries. My colleague from the Surrey district, Jordan Tinney, recently wrote a wonderful post on this very topic – Change is Just a Mouse Click Away . . . Or is It?
The story often told is that we don’t have enough technology, or that teachers are not ready to make the pedagogical shift. Yes, those are factors, but not the ‘number one’ issue. Over the last two years we have ensured all staff in West Vancouver have access to a digital device of their choice, a topic I recently wrote about When Teachers Have Devices. Surveying these teachers at the end of last year, we learned that about one-third of teachers are looking for more support with the changing pedagogy of the digital classroom; about the same number referenced the need for more technical support, and close to 90% indicated improving Internet speed “needs to be a priority.” While it is tremendously exciting what is happening our classrooms, the spinning wheel in the middle of the screen can be a real downer.
The West Vancouver School District is actually in far better shape than most school districts. We have invested in fiber connectivity, upgraded devices, modernized the ‘behind the walls’ with our technology and are looking at traffic shaping (giving priority to certain types of activities on the Internet like the student information system) and still we are challenged. Looking at the next five, or even two years, there is going to be more outbound traffic. Classes are increasingly using data rich websites; video use is taking off; teacher collaboration in a digital environment is growing rapidly, and a new student information system for BC promises to provide amazing data at the touch of a key. In fact, in the very near future, I predict we will have more devices connecting to our network on a daily basis than we have students and teachers in our district.
It is easy to identify challenges, but this is one with some solutions. The Provincial Learning Network (PLNet) provides “reliable, robust and safe network infrastructure enabling communications and the delivery of educational content to schools and post-secondary institutions in British Columbia” according to its website. It has served us very well. It has helped us give assurances to families around content filtering (such as students surfing the web). However, as school bandwidth demands are expected to increase 30% year-over-year, we need to either upgrade this system or move on to a new model. So, do we do it together as a province or 60 different ways as districts? And, as it often comes down to in education, who pays?
As we scale the use of technology in our schools we will need to reduce and eventually eliminate the bandwidth barrier. Recently, I heard a speaker suggest that the global leaders in digital learning will be those with the greatest bandwidth. We are making a promise to create engaging learning environments for our students through personalized learning powered by digital access. We will continue accessing the Internet and we need it to be as reliable as heat, light, and telephone service in our schools. We also need to get on with this challenge — if we wait on it longer, there will only be larger barriers in the years ahead.
I recently spoke on a ministry panel on this topic with the IT and Communications Working Group; a group that has concluded that moving forward requires a robust and upgraded provincial data network. AGREED!