Magazine article Technology & Learning

How Fast Is Fast Enough? the Question of Adequate Bandwidth Is Increasingly the Issue of the Day

Magazine article Technology & Learning

How Fast Is Fast Enough? the Question of Adequate Bandwidth Is Increasingly the Issue of the Day

Article excerpt


Just how much bandwidth does the average student in the United States have access to today, and how much will he or she need in the future? That depends ... is the answer from district CTOs, state technology directors, industry experts, and classroom teachers.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 97 percent of U.S. public schools with access to the Internet used broadband connections in 2005 ( display.asp?id=46). But broadband encompasses a broad range of bandwidth. As capacity gets divided among more students using increasingly demanding data, voice, and multimedia applications, every student's service degrades.

The Networking Basics

Whether a student has the ability to watch an undersea video from the JASON Project or to create a report on earthquakes using U.S. Geological Survey maps depends on the speed, availability, and reliability of each part of the pipeline, including:

1. The speed and quality of the device used for access. A computer, laptop, or handheld device requires memory, graphics ability, and a 100 megabit per second (Mbps) or better connection for most of today's Web browsing.

2. The capacity of the internal school network, or local area network, which includes all instructional computers, administrative connections, and may include servers.

3. The capacity of the line from the school to the district, the wide area network, where many students and teachers may be connecting to testing servers, student information systems, content management systems, and other large network applications.

4. The capacity of the connection from the district office to the Internet or another service provider. Internet service contracts should guarantee a bandwidth level such as 1.5 Mbps T-1 services and should not split T-1 lines between multiple customers.

At each of these junctures, the more users who tap into the pipeline and the more demanding their applications, the less capacity available to everyone. A T-1 line with 1.5 Mbps may work just fine for a school of 500 students with a 5-to-1 student to computer ratio, but quickly taps out at a high school with 1,500 students and a one-to-one laptop initiative.

On testing day, when all students log in to a bandwidth-intensive testing site, an otherwise functioning network may reach capacity. Test sessions may time out before recording answers, or response time may be slow, both crucial factors in timed tests.

Pressure from the Students

Students feel the crunch when they compare Internet access at home to school. A 2005 study by Grunwald Associates, a market research firm specializing in K-12 education, found that of students who had only dial-up access at home, 35 percent still felt that connection was faster than the broadband they had at school, and 27 percent ranked access about the same.

"Schools are going to have to adjust to the new reality of how kids use digital media," says Peter Grunwald, president of the Maryland-based firm. "Not only are they heavier and heavier users, they are becoming producers of media through social networking and multimedia. Schools have to accommodate that to engage kids."

What does this mean for the classroom? "It's like not having enough books or enough chalk," says Edwin Wargo, a teacher and technology coordinator at Quarter Mile Lane Elementary School in Bridgeton, New Jersey. He is enthusiastic about the potential of technology to help students learn 21st-century skills and compete in the global marketplace. But slow access hampers teaching and learning.

The Tipping Point

Even schools that can accommodate all of their network traffic today may be on the tipping point tomorrow. One more classroom application, a video conference, a learning game simulation, or more access points could each top out the network capacity, causing dropped connections, timed-out sessions, and lost data. …

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