Schools across the nation continue to adopt blended learning because research shows that it benefits both online and face-to-face learning, but success hinges largely on the viability of the networks needed to support these programs.
Blended learning has the potential to “afford each student a more personalized learning experience, including increased student control over the time, place, path and/or pace of learning,” according to research by the Clayton Christensen Institute. It’s the use of Internet-based learning experiences that primarily make this enhanced student control possible.
Programs that require a computing device for each student, for instance, likely require a more robust network infrastructure than programs that feature the rotation of students through computer labs or centers. Regardless of whether a school provides students with district-owned devices through a one-to-one program or whether students bring their personal devices for use in the classroom, Wi-Fi networks to support all students using their devices frequently throughout the day need to accommodate excessive data traffic spikes.
While a blended learning program is clearly an instructional initiative, a district’s technology infrastructure and Wi-Fi capability remain critical to the performance of the program. In many instances, leaders within a school system who oversee these programs may not have the expertise to anticipate the accompanying technology needs. Therefore, school and district technology leaders will need to insert themselves into the process of designing and implementing blended learning models.
What does that look like, and how can a district chart a path to success? Here are tactics learned along the way while establishing a blended program for the Quakertown (Pa.) Community School District, where I served as director of virtual education services.
Technology leaders must either lead or be a part of a cross-functional team of school stakeholders responsible for the design, implementation and growth of the blended learning program. This team should consist of students, teachers, building-level administrators, curriculum leaders and the head of finance. The technology leader must gain an understanding of what teaching and learning will look like in the blended environment, including the types of computing devices needed, the sources of digital content, and the learning management system or platform through which students and teachers will engage.
A thorough understanding of how teachers plan to the use the program will help an IT leader determine appropriate bandwidth and throughput. It will also drive switching and data transport requirements. Understanding the learning plan and then mapping it to likely bandwidth consumption is admittedly not an easy task. But anticipating the short-term (three-to-five-year) and long-term (five-to-10-year) Wi-Fi needs of a blended learning program is critical to establishing a roadmap for infrastructure development and sustainability.
In 2014, the Consortium for School Networking, eLearn Institute and Education Networks of America collaborated to make recommendations specifically for school Wi-Fi networks. While these recommendations were made within the context of readiness for online assessments, they also are apt guidance for blended learning programs.
Although some schools have installed consumer-grade wireless access points to provide Wi-Fi capability, it is highly recommended that schools immediately replace consumer-grade Wi-Fi products with enterprise-grade network gear.
The complexity of designing Wi-Fi networks has increased dramatically, and in addition to the physical coverage area, density of devices, mobility of devices, applications used and security all now need to be taken into consideration.
Beyond the design of the physical network, districts need to plan for installation, monitoring and maintenance of access points as well as the overall Wi-Fi network and technology refresh to fully address current and future Wi-Fi network needs.
The digital content formats being used as part of a blended learning program will also play a major role in determining the bandwidth capacity needed within each classroom, as well as a school and district’s overall Internet capacity.
Some schools choose to develop their own digital content for student consumption, and this content may come in various formats. Perhaps the most common forms are video lectures and screencasts, which require downloading for the student to view them. In a classroom of 25 to 30 students, the demand on the Wi-Fi network may be significant depending on the file sizes of such content. The location where this content is hosted also has implications for network planning.
In an environment where teachers are developing content for blended learning programs, the content is typically housed or organized within a learning management system. The LMS may reside internally on a school network, or it may be hosted in the cloud by a third party. Third-party options will certainly require greater Internet bandwidth to support students downloading large files for viewing or streaming audio and video through a school’s Internet connection.
The IT team must evaluate and quantify all of these scenarios in consultation with the instructional staff.
Planning for the funding of a school’s blended learning program is as strategic as defining network functionality. The primary technology components are devices, digital content and the network.
Financial sustainability for a program can be achieved through the development of a regular refresh plan for computing devices and network equipment (including switches, routers and wireless access points). Given regular cycles of equipment replacement, technology leaders can plan finances properly and allocate funds when and where they are most needed for their district’s blended program.
Although there may be opportunities for technology leaders to leverage grant money and limited capital project funds, it is wise to include the purchase of new or replacement devices and equipment in the general operating budget to ensure ongoing expenses are clearly recognized as a necessary ongoing expense. Additionally, the latest changes to the federal E-Rate program offer smart ways to infuse funds for blended learning into school budgets.
The implementation rate of blended learning programs is increasing, and technology leaders must position themselves so that they become embedded into the design and implementation of these programs. Only by doing so can they ensure that they will be ready to anticipate and meet the necessary network requirements.