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Sponsored Content: Making Connections

As schools increasingly rely on resources outside the district to deliver instructional content and operational applications, a strong, reliable network is more important than ever. Article sponsored by Comcast.

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To test his network in preparation for the Common Core–aligned PARCC assessment, Keith Bockwoldt packed a gymnasium with 225 iPad-wielding students and asked them to all fire up YouTube videos at the same time.

The trial went off without a hitch.

“We didn’t have any buffering or any loss of connectivity,” says Bockwoldt, director of technology services for Township High School District 214 in northern Illinois. “A couple of years ago, we wouldn’t have had enough bandwidth to support that.”

In 2004, the district switched from an early networking technology with limited bandwidth to Comcast Ethernet. Since then, the schools have upgraded their capacity several times to keep up with demand.

“We’ve had exponential growth,” says Bockwoldt. “We currently have over 9,000 iPads deployed for 12,000 students. Next year, we’re looking at all students having a device, so it’s critical for us to have the capacity to support instruction in the classrooms.”

Two decades after the Internet began to transform the way teachers and students access information, most educators are well aware of the need for a fast connection. But high-speed Internet is only one piece of a school district’s connectivity puzzle. Strong connectivity between schools and other sites, in the form of a robust wide area network (WAN), is just as important. Increasingly, so are connections to external data centers and cloud-hosted systems—both of which can expand schools’ IT capacities without adding any physical infrastructure on-site. Finally, recognizing that the need for connectivity doesn’t end with the school day, a number of districts have found ways to help students and their families get online when they’re at home.

More Bandwidth

When the Internet first came into schools, it was largely used for basic research, and everyone was happy to wait a minute or two for webpages to load—that was still much faster than taking a trip to the library and riffling through the card catalog. That has all changed—­dramatically.

“You have streaming videos, with sites like YouTube and Khan Academy,” says Bock­woldt. “And there’s a plethora of tools that teachers are accessing. You need to have the bandwidth and the infrastructure. Otherwise, teachers and students aren’t going to have a good experience, and your staff will lose trust
in the system.”

In a 2013 Pew survey of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers, 92 percent said the Internet has a “major impact” on their ability to access content, resources, and materials for their teaching.

Intradistrict Connections

A high-speed Internet connection won’t do school districts any good unless they have a network robust enough to support it.

“While the Internet pipe needs to be big enough, so do those connections that go to the schools,” says Bockwoldt.

Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana gets its Internet connection through the state but relies on Comcast Ethernet to connect more than 50 sites in its WAN, and the district recently doubled the connection speed to its high schools to keep up with increasing demand.

Jack Byrd, director of technology for Fort Wayne, says that high-capacity intradistrict connections are vital, especially for delivering multimedia learning tools. “If we have any Internet or wide area network disruptions, that’s affecting instruction,” he says.

A WAN that is private, secure, and highly available is the foundation for resource distribution within a school district. It’s what allows schools to adopt new applications that enhance both instruction and business operations, and then push those applications out to every school in the district.

For example, both District 214 and Fort Wayne have moved away from analog phone systems to voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), which offers districts new features and can also reduce phone bills. Byrd notes that VOIP would be impossible if Fort Wayne hadn’t upgraded its WAN more than a decade ago. “Our voice communications, our video communications, and, of course, our data—that’s all done through Comcast’s network,” he says. 

Data Centers and Cloud Computing

When school districts run out of space to store servers—or when they simply want to move their data to a more controlled environment—they often turn to third-party data centers. Or, if they want to outsource some or all of their servers entirely, they look to cloud service providers like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

A data center allows districts to rent space with adequate power, cooling, and security for their servers, eliminating the chance that a custodian might accidentally spill water on the equipment or unplug it. Some districts connect to these off-site data centers via the Internet, but increasingly, schools are using an Ethernet connection that replicates the performance of their WANs.

Cloud service providers allow school districts to eliminate their physical servers and rent out virtual servers instead, and these virtual servers can be accessed via the Internet or a private connection to the provider.

Even among districts that continue to maintain their own servers on-site, nearly all schools are using some type of business or instructional software that is hosted in the cloud. Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365, which allow students and staff to create, edit, and collaborate on projects that are stored in the cloud, are prime examples of this. Many districts also rely on the cloud for applications like teacher evaluation programs and learning management systems.

Connecting at Home

Fort Wayne is getting ready to switch to Office 365, which allows students to store their work in the cloud. If they save a draft of a research paper while they’re at school, they can access that same draft at home later—but only if they’re connected to the Internet. The district and Comcast have joined forces to make sure all students can have a robust home connection.

A number of Fort Wayne students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch receive home Internet service through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which offers broadband at a reduced rate for those students and their families.

The district has participated in the program for several years, but Byrd says that home Internet is becoming increasingly important as schools move toward more cloud-hosted learning software that students need a connection to access.

“One of our goals is that kids can learn anytime, anywhere,” Byrd says. “Learning doesn’t stop at the school walls.”

Illustration: Laura Rolwing

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