Bring Your Own Device Prompts School Infrastructure Investments

School districts increasingly allow students to use their mobile devices for learning, yet many schools don't have the infrastructure to support devices for every student.

by / March 13, 2012 0

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Many of the nation's school districts still don't have the bandwidth needed to support mobile devices used by students.

IT leaders have no idea how much bandwidth usage will grow once students bring their own devices to school for learning, said Bailey Mitchell, chief technology and information officer of Georgia's Forsyth County Schools, one of the leaders in the bring-your-own-device movement.

"They do not have adequate infrastructure to enable an environment where potentially every other or every student has a device," said Mitchell, who is also the board chairman of the Consortium of School Networking. Mitchell's comments came during the consortium's annual conference in early March.

Just from the end of last year to this year, the number of devices that access Forsyth County Schools network has jumped from about 10,000 to 19,000.

While broadband may seem like a no-brainer, school districts need more broadband than they have now to support student devices. Having extra bandwidth to grow definitely helps, Mitchell said.

But you have to be able to justify that extra bandwidth to your superintendent. A shortage of bandwidth at Forsyth one year probably helped make the case that more was needed.

The scene was ugly. Mitchell's team normally doesn't throttle student and educator activity on the network, he said. But that was the only way to consistently support high-priority activities. The superintendent had three computers and felt the immediate impact. And teachers had come to rely on Internet access for their classroom activities; they didn't have a back-up plan. Consequently student instruction was interrupted.

"If you don't have the infrastructure to back it up when you need it, you're going to lose teachers and you're going to lose students because they don't see it as reliable," Mitchell said.

Currently Forsyth has a 1.3 gigabit connection — three times more than it had last year — to the Internet and 2 gigabit-per-second speeds on its wide area networks. Three campuswide wireless networks are at the N level.

One network is like a coffee shop's — authentication isn't required for access. The other two are internal networks — one for students and one for teachers — that are more protected.

The Georgia district also has a fully meshed network backbone. Two wide area networks terminate in different locations and are fully meshed. "We've been able to justify that expense because when the network blips, it's such an impact on instruction that it's absolutely unacceptable," Mitchell said.

This ever-increasing need for bandwidth prompted Mitchell to start using solutions that can be scaled throughout the school year. If he wanted to, he could call today and have the bandwidth adjusted.

He repeatedly emphasized that school districts should choose providers that offer scalable technology.

Everyone wants to know how much bandwidth they will need, but a magic formula doesn't exist. Mitchell cited a number of different methods that have been suggested, including recommended bandwidth per student, bandwidth per activity (email, VoIP, online learning), and peak demand on a per-user basis.

But Mitchell said the bandwidth required depends on how much teachers and the school district are adopting a "bring your own device" technology environment. If a district isn't prepared for the initiative, and teachers aren't adopting it, then bandwidth usage likely won't increase significantly.

When teachers allow students to use their devices every day and throughout the day, bandwidth use will go up. And that's something IT directors need to keep an eye on.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.