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How schools and students can narrow the homework gap via private networks

The massive shift to distance learning during the pandemic cast a sweeping spotlight on the challenges U.S. school systems continue to face trying to ensure every student has equitable access to online learning resources.

A recent report from Common Sense and the Boston Consulting Group found that an estimated 15 million to 16 million K-12 public school students — or about 30% of all public-school students — still live in households that either lack connection to the internet or lack a device that’s adequate for distance learning from home. 

“There have been a number of new reports about this challenge, and every one seems to find that the problem is bigger than what we first thought. Not only are there [students who are] unconnected, but they’re under-connected,” meaning their upload speeds can’t keep up with online classroom interaction, says Keith Krueger, CEO of the CoSN, the Consortium for School Networking.

“We’ve done a large study with the help of the Chan Zuckerberg initiative,” which looked at online activities of 750,000 in 13 school districts 750,000 students, says Krueger in a new EdScoop podcast, underwritten by Dell Technologies. “The study found that video is changing the way that learning happens — and the traditional way of thinking of broadband.”

While the Federal Communications Commission has primarily concentrated on download speeds and considered 12 megabits per second being enough for a family, it has broadly overlooked the importance of upload speeds.

“What we’re finding is that the upload — and getting the interactivity [needed to get] the student engaged in the class is absolutely essential. The [FCC’s baseline] of 3 megabits upload is insufficient, even for one learner, let alone the 60% of families that have more than two students — and let alone their parents working from home,” says Krueger.

That’s where new technology approaches — and a slice of radio spectrum known as Citizens Broadband Radio Service, recently released by federal authorities — may be of help to schools and communities that lack adequate or affordable access to broadband, says Dell Technologies Education Strategist Matt Dascoli on the podcast.

Schools can use CBRS without having to purchase a license, according to Dascoli. “The significance of this spectrum is that it allows not just schools but also companies, institutions and communities to transmit a radio signal to a larger diameter than other radio signals and allows for high-speed interactivity that users are more accustomed to experiencing with Wi-Fi.

As importantly, however, it can be set up to operate as a private network so that schools can control who has access to the network, and limit users to students or their families, for instance.

Dascoli and Krueger say a number of school systems are already investigating the use of private networks as an alternative to hotspots.

“I think we are seeing a huge interest in what I call options beyond hotspots,” says Krueger, whose organization represents technology leaders serving K-12 school systems nationwide. “LTE-enabled devices have been the strategies that most school districts have been doing. But unfortunately, there are areas — rural districts or high-density living situations like apartments — where the commercial LTE network just doesn’t work. We also found that not all hotspots are equal. A lot of these lower cost hotspots just simply didn’t work.”

He cites Arlington County Public Schools, in Virginia, as one example where the district’s chief technology officer is now looking at CBRS and private networks to supplement a combination of hotspots and LTE devices to support equitable online access. Officials in Desert Sands Unified School District in California, meanwhile, have also recently crunched the numbers on building a private network, according to Krueger. They found that while the upfront build-out cost might appear high, the annual cost to operate the network going forward was roughly one-tenth of the cost of maintaining annual LTE contracts, he says. 

Dascoli stressed that private networks bring two more advantages: They are inherently more secure, and they offer communities the ability to add internet-enabled sensors and systems that can support fire, police and other community service departments.

Listen to the podcast for the full conversation on preparing agency networks to support IT modernization priorities. You can hear more coverage of “IT Modernization in Education” on EdScoop’s radio channels on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and TuneIn.

Learn more how Dell Technologies is transforming K-12 Education.

Keith Krueger is CEO at Consortium for School Networking (CoSN and a leading voice for digital equity and the strategic use of technology to improve teaching and learning in America’s school systems. CoSN provides a wide range of national reports and training on education technology issues.

Matt Dascoli serves as Education Strategist at Dell Technologies. He began his career as a teacher before becoming the manager of instructional technology in a Virginia public school system, supporting 64 schools and some 60,000 students. He later worked for a digital learning software maker before joining Dell five and half years ago.  

This podcast was produced by EdScoop and underwritten by Dell Technologies.