A new report points to continued gains by U.S. school systems in meeting national broadband delivery goals, but raises fresh concerns about their ability to provide digital-enabled learning environments for all students over the long run.
The 2016 Annual Infrastructure Survey, released by the professional association CoSN, found that 68 percent of school districts are fully meeting minimum internet broadband connectivity targets set by the Federal Communications Commission in 2014 – up from 19 percent in 2013. The FCC, as part of its E-Rate Modernization Order and the Obama administration’s ConnectED initiative, called for schools to deliver bandwidth speeds of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students over the near term, and 10 times that speed by the 2017-2018 school year.
However, the survey also highlighted a variety of concerns among school leaders about the challenges they face ensuring all students have equal access to online learning. Chief among them is the cost and affordability of establishing higher-capacity internet connectivity in their schools and communities over the longer term.
The findings, released November 2, are based on a survey of 567 K-12 school administrators and technology directors in 48 states and the District of Columbia, conducted by CoSN, a national organization serving education technology leaders, in partnership with AASA, The School Superintendents Association and MDR. The survey also gauged where schools stand on a variety of infrastructure and digital learning issues, including network reliability and competition, security and cloud-based services.
The study, for instance, found that approximately 40 percent of school districts are considering moving their server infrastructure to the cloud. Nearly 60 percent of school systems leaders said learning management systems make up the largest portion of their cloud deployments, followed by student information systems.
School leaders also reported that Wi-Fi networks are nearly ubiquitous in their high schools— with only 6 percent reporting they lack Wi-Fi. Eight in 10 (81 percent) of the survey respondents indicated that they were very confident or somewhat confident in their Wi-Fi systems, a significant improvement over previous years.
However, school system leaders are divided about whether the long-term goal of delivering 1 Gbps per 1,000 students is too ambitious or about right. Only 15 percent of school districts currently reported having 100 percent of schools in their district able to deliver that level of capacity.
Recurring expenses were cited as a key reason for their concern. Affordability was seen as the biggest barrier schools face trying to deliver robust connectivity – mentioned by 57 percent of school leaders in the survey. That reflects a sizable increase, from 46 percent, among those polled last year.
Behind that concern is the increase in devices students rely on. School leaders estimated that nearly two-thirds of all students will use two or more devices at school within the next three years—an increase from 21 percent of students today, the study found.
Another concern revolves around security. Nearly half of school system leaders said they spend less than 4 percent of their entire technology budget on security, yet rising concerns about denial of service and ransomware attacks are weighing on school leaders’ minds.
“The good news is districts are making real progress in supporting modern technology infrastructure. However, it remains clear that more work and investment are needed over the long run to address the digital equity challenge of today and provide robust broadband connectivity for all students in and outside of school,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN.
Nearly two-thirds of school system leaders, the study found, do not have any strategies for providing off-campus connectivity to students.
On the positive side, the overall cost for monthly internet connection itself is coming down for more schools: Nearly one-half of respondents reported internet costs of less than $5 per Mbps per month, compared to 36 percent in 2015 and 27 percent in 2014.
Getting competitive access to service, however, remains a challenge for rural districts, where more than half (54 percent) of district leaders reported having access to only one internet service provider.
“The findings of this survey—both where progress has been made and where there is continued room for growth—are in strong parallel to the underlying improvements of ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act),” said AASA Executive Director Daniel A. Domenech.
They also point to “the responsibility state and local education agencies will play in leveraging expanded decision-making authority into meaningful learning opportunities for their students…and addressing equitable educational opportunities,” he said. Those are “tied directly to connectivity, including equitable access both in and outside of school,” he added.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, reacting to the study’s findings said the progress in broadband infrastructure in U.S. schools “is welcome news. At the same time, however, the survey shows that challenges remain. In particular, we must continue to raise awareness and come up with strategies to overcome the ‘Homework Gap,’ which is the cruelest part of our new digital divide,” she said.