In the state of Washington, technology has removed distance as a barrier to a great education. Mountains are traversed in an instant, miles are reduced to milliseconds, and world-class learning institutions are never more than a few clicks away.
Thanks to the K–20 Education Network, high school students can take online advanced placement courses at the University of Washington and other four-year colleges statewide. Elementary school students in Washington's rural eastern counties can go on virtual field trips to Seattle's museums without having to climb onto a bus. And medical practitioners at remote clinics can consult with specialists at UW's School of Medicine via video conferencing or attend remote training courses to sharpen their skills.
All of this is made possible by a high-speed computer network created more than 15 years ago, when the vast majority of computer users were connecting to the Internet using dial-up modems. In some areas of rural Washington, even dial-up wasn't available when the K–20 network rolled out in 1996, says Tom Carroll, systems manager for the network.
"We were doing broadband before broadband was cool," he says. "In some parts of the state back then, you couldn't get high-speed Internet at any price. When we implemented this project, the slowest connection you could get on the K–20 network was at T1 speeds — and some of those places didn't even have 56K dial-up at the time."
Now, more than 1.5 million students connect via K–20. Using the network, the University of Washington's School of Medicine has created a telehealth program linking more than 24 healthcare providers throughout the Northwest region.
But K–20 is more than just a fat pipeline to the Internet, says Clare Donahue, UW associate vice president for networks, data centers and telecommunications, which operates K–20. It's a full-fledged production network that delivers workplace apps for staff and serves up video and multimedia course content for thousands of students every day.
The K–20 network got a big boost earlier this year when it was upgraded to MX480-series routers from Juniper Networks. The primary reason: The network needed more bandwidth to handle the huge influx of mobile devices accessing the network. Donahue says overall mobile device usage at UW grows at a rate of 50 percent each year — with no end in sight.
"On the UW campus, we average around three devices per student, between smartphones and tablets," she says. "What most people don't realize about mobile Internet access is that you still need to have a wired network behind it. The student's use of applications and courseware on mobile devices just eats up that bandwidth."
The upgrade also let K–20 eliminate redundant equipment, improving the network's speed and reliability, Carroll adds.
"We've used Juniper core switches from the very beginning, and now we're on our third iteration of them," he says. "Because the MX480s are so capable, we could eliminate certain equipment from the network by terminating those services directly onto the Juniper equipment. That also allowed us to eliminate those points of failure and improve reliability. This was pretty important to us."
5,000% The increase in data usage on the K–20 Education Network over the past 10 years
SOURCE: Washington State Auditor's Office
The K–20 network also serves the state's K–12 school districts by ensuring a consistent level of Internet access at very competitive rates, says Dennis Small, educational technology director for the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
"Before the K–20 network started, only 4 percent had Internet access anywhere in the school, not even necessarily in the classrooms," Small says. "Now, 99.8 percent of all classrooms in Washington state have access. K–20 has made connectivity an assumed way of doing business instead of the exception."
It also allows smaller or more isolated districts to take advantage of resources they wouldn't otherwise have access to, he adds.
"We are seeing schools using video conferencing to share teachers with unique skill sets," he says. "Two or three smaller school districts might share a French teacher, or high school students in a rural district will take advanced courses from four-year institutions. There are a lot more opportunities for what we call 'blended learning,' a combination of online and face-to-face instruction."
Community college students benefit from K–20 by taking more of their courses online, says Mike Scroggins, deputy executive director for IT for the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges and one of the network's founders. K–20 lets community college students who are holding down jobs take courses their work schedules might not otherwise permit, as well as attend popular classes that are in high demand. It also saves the state a significant amount of money, he adds.
"To handle all the students who are attending community college online, the state would have to invest in three additional brick-and-mortar schools," Scroggins says.
Members of the network share the costs of bandwidth as well as management responsibilities, a model that has worked extremely well over the years, says Scroggins.
Despite its positive results, the K–20 network has come under increased scrutiny by legislators looking to trim Washington's budget. In 2010, the legislature commissioned the state auditor to conduct a study on whether to phase out the network or privatize it.
The conclusion: The K–20 network has saved the state tens of millions of dollars by offering Internet access at below-market rates, as well as through costs avoided by needing to build fewer schools. Eliminating the network, the study found, would severely limit Internet access for rural schools and libraries — and, it found, the network has yet to reach its potential. As a new, more tech-savvy generation of teachers arrives, says Carroll, K–20's importance to instruction is likely to increase.
"As younger K–12 teachers with a better understanding of technology enter the schools, they are more apt to use video tools to take a virtual field trip to a museum on the other side of the state, or use the Internet to connect to a research institute in Monterey, or engage in a video conference with engineers at NASA to talk about what kinds of careers students can pursue with a math or science degree," he says. "This is really about expanding kids' horizons."
Video conferencing has been one of the most important elements of the K–20 Education Network since its inception. The network first started offering video in 1996, primarily in rural K–12 and community college classrooms.
"If you wanted to offer a particular class in, say, understanding Russian grammar at an advanced level, there was probably only one guy in the state who could teach that," says Clare Donahue, associate vice president for networks, data centers and telecommunications at the University of Washington.
Donahue says that such a class would be set up with video conferencing equipment, and people in different parts of the state would all take the class from the same professor. It wasn't long before the schools began using video conferencing for administrative meetings as well as for classroom work.
Now, nearly 80 percent of the K–20 network member institutions employ video conferencing for distance learning or administrative use. What's interesting, says Donahue, is that despite the increased popularity of inexpensive desktop video chat software such as Skype or FaceTime, most K–20 member institutions still rely on dedicated Polycom video conferencing gear using the H.320 specification. The majority of the endpoints used on the K–20 network are Polycom VSX 7000 and HDX 8000.
"People expect video quality to be the same as what they see on their TV sets," Donahue says. "HD quality is what they are used to. Contrast that with the typical Skype experience, which would be considered unacceptable in business meetings or the classroom. As television increases in definition, user expectations continue to rise. And the Polycom unit I have in my office actually looks better than the TV I have at home."
Although some thought that the use of dedicated video conferencing equipment would have diminished by now, it hasn't, Donahue says.
"I'd have thought video would have migrated to the desktop, and video conferencing would be a dead duck, but it isn't," Donahue says. "You still need to be able to do multipoint conferences. People are still looking for that huge classroom experience. And nobody wants to travel anymore."