This week I traveled to Chicago for the three-day Consortium of School Networks (CoSN) #COSN17 Annual Conference.  And while the official conference theme was “Invent the Future”, it was a different recurring theme that I noted throughout the show: Digital Equity.

In both sessions and conversations, district superintendents, CIO’s, CTO’s and other technology professionals kept referring to digital equity.  In his opening plenary session, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent and national “2016 Superintendent of the Year” @miamisup Alberto Carvalho emphasized the critical role of digital equity in bridging the achievement and economic gaps within student populations and in ensuring an equitable future for all. 

There appears to be divergent opinions on what exactly “digital equity” means, and what it will take to achieve it.  Some district leaders feel that by providing laptops to the entire student body achieves digital equity.  Others believe that laptops or other devices should only be provided to those students that are unable to afford it.  The most comprehensive definition I heard expanded beyond merely providing a device for the students to take home.  It addressed the question of whether and how the students can connect their devices to the digital curriculums housed within the district’s data centers, or to cloud-based providers. 

As many district leaders acknowledged, education is no longer a 7:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. issue. It’s now a 24 x7 phenomenon, with the “outside the schoolhouse” component often more important than the classroom experience. And the connectivity requirements are growing by leaps and bounds.

With streaming video, interactive, personalized learning and collaborative, project based lessons, the bandwidth requirements are substantial.  As Mr. Carvalho put it, “digital equality requires a wide digital highway – 1Gig, 10Gig, even 20Gig networks are becoming the norm”.

Bridging the Digital Equity Gap

District leaders are taking innovative approaches to addressing the “beyond the school building” connectivity requirements.  Many districts are opening schools earlier and closing later, so that students that lack broadband access at home can complete their homework using the school’s network.  Others are partnering with libraries and local businesses to extend internet access to their students after school hours and on weekends. 

One superintendent stated that “if local businesses allow my students to access the internet from their establishments, I give them publicity to the parents”.

Other innovative CTO’s equip district school buses with network switches and park them in lower-income neighborhoods so that students can access broadband connectivity through the vehicle’s network footprint.

Other district CTO’s are concerned about whether pursuing digital equity can result in “bandwidth inequity”.  Their reasoning is that with more devices accessing bandwidth-intensive content at the same time, they will compete for bandwidth with all the other applications running across the network.   For example, one CTO from a district in Louisiana stated that she expanded her district’s fiber capacity from 1Gbps to 10Gbps.  When I asked, what drove her to do so, she explained that the increase in devices for students coincided with an increase in network congestion. 

The congestion was especially acute during online testing. In fact, she stated that whenever the district was conducting online testing, she had to scale back on of the video applications - which in turn impacted teachers’ lesson plans.

Growing connectivity without a growing budget

Several other CTO’s I spoke with also recently expanded network capacity to avoid “bandwidth inequality” between applications.  The problem they face in doing so is that budgets remain flat.  Many districts report no increases in their IT budgets, and some are experiencing decreases.  Which means that any additional investment in one area such as broadband, comes at the expense of another area. 

Making those decisions is one thing that keeps district technology leaders awake at night.  During the conference opening plenary session, the results of the CoSN 2017 K-12 IT Leadership Survey Report were announced.  Broadband and Network Capacity was rated as the number two priority among the survey respondents.  While this category slipped from its’ number one spot last year, Broadband and Network Capacity is tightly linked to this year’s top priority Mobile Learning. 

The other priorities – cyber security, bring your own device, open educational resources, etc., will compete for scarce budget dollars.   Once again Mr. Cavahlo provided a great perspective and example during his speech.  He said that when facing difficult decisions, “you have to focus on what’s best for the students, and what reflects your district’s values.  If it’s important to you, then find a way to do it.  Budget for what you value, and do what’s best for the kids”.