Andrew RobertsIn my previous blog, we talked about trends we are seeing in EdTech in Australia. The traditional concept of ‘school hours’ is being challenged with teachers and classmates able to interact at anytime from anywhere. Students and teachers can engage remotely and over distance.  Student mobility and cloud-based technologies remove the constraints of the physical classroom.  Students are increasingly equipped with mobile devices, desktop-based PCs are displaced by laptops, which are now increasingly sidelined with tablets and even high-end smartphones. These trends are supported by the increasingly prevalent use of video-based learning, collaborative learning, and even augmented and virtual reality.

Let us take a deeper look at the bandwidth requirements, distribution and traffic patterns, connectivity options and network design considerations to support these requirements.

Download: Networks for the Future of Education in AustraliaActivity bandwidth requirements

When planning network capacity, it is important to consider all traffic sources and traffic patterns. Besides teaching and learning, the vast majority of schools run classroom applications, school administration systems and office applications on the same network, often at the same time.  Many schools are also migrating school administrative systems and business applications to the cloud to reduce IT cost and complexity. According to Austrade, there are other EdTech applications driving network bandwidth including student admissions, testing and assessment, data analytics, student financing and parental engagement.

The following table outlines per-session bandwidth requirements for common digital education activities.  Overall bandwidth requirements can be estimated by considering the number of students in a network catchment area and considering oversubscription and statistics gains.

ActivityTypical Bandwidth (Per Individual Session)
Taking an online class .25 Mb/s
Searching the web 1 Mb/s
Downloading digital instructional content 1 Mb/s
Engaging with simulation 5 Mb/s
Streaming an HD video 5 Mb/s
Skype group video session 8 Mb/s
Downloading a 6144MB movie in 8 mins 100 Mb/s

Table 1. Typical bandwidth usage for various applications (The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning, SETDA, September 2016; Skype source; movie download source)

These numbers provide the minimum guidance and do not take into consideration running multiple applications concurrently.  For example, students utilising Zoom with 1080p video will require >3Mbps up/down but will require additional bandwidth if concurrent applications (such as online courseware, web-browsing or other applications) are running.  Bandwidth requirements are very likely to grow as EdTech applications evolve.  For example, cloud-based AR/VR (required for applications like immersive reality) may require bandwidths of up to 700Mbps and sub 10ms latency.

These trends suggest significant bandwidth requirements growth which may result in requirement for > 100Gbps per 1,000 students/staff by 2025.

School bandwidth requirements

School bandwidth requirements can be very different for each school, which depends on many factors including the school population, type of courses conducted and teaching method, among other factors. In the United States, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) has provided the following minimum guidelines for growth targets from 2014-2015 to 2017-2018. These numbers suggest significant bandwidth requirements growth.  These trends suggest significant bandwidth requirements growth which may result in requirement for > 100Gbps per 1,000 students/staff by 2025.

Broadband Access for Teaching, Learning, and School Operations2014-15 School Year Target2017-18 School Year Target
An external Internet connection to the Internet Service Provider {ISP} At least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff At least 1 Gbps per 1,000 students/staff
Internal wide area network {WAN} connections from the district to each school and among schools within the district At least 1 Gbps per 1,000 students/staff At least 10 Gbps per 1,000 students/staff

Table 2: School bandwidth requirements (SETDA)

Distribution and Traffic Patterns

In addition to the growth in bandwidth requirements, traffic patterns can shift over time.  Increasingly educators and students will access education content while at home.  Content that may be traditionally been hosted in the classroom (such as video content on a classroom server) will be accessed in the cloud.

The pervasiveness of collaborative learning platforms (such as TalkBoard and Padlet) will further drive changes to traffic patterns.  It is important for educators to monitor traffic patterns and tune their networks to avoid compromising educational outcomes.

Looking ahead: Network design considerations

In addition to connectivity and bandwidth, a number of other factors should be considered in order to build a network that can support the evolving and fast-growing demands of EdTech:

On-demand capability Key to responding to changing demands of EdTech. New applications will drive changes in traffic patterns and inevitably demand more bandwidth. Networks should be designed with flexibility and adaptability in mind.
Network resilience For both learning and administration, network availability is key as tools move online, and outages have significant impact on learning outcomes.
Manageability “Single pane of glass” operations are key to ensuring effective manageability of all aspects of network and service lifecycle – from service creation, modification, assurance and fault management, through the ongoing optimisation.
Security Network integrity as well as specific security capability (such as encrypted connections, firewalls, intrusion detection, etc.) are needed to ensure student and teacher privacy.
Contracting flexibility Should be flexible to allow for changing needs, including bandwidth, flows, security, networking and features driven by rapidly evolving EdTech software and methodologies.
Catering to future needs EdTech evolution will drive new requirements, e.g. edge compute, cloud connect, virtualised services. Requirements yet-to-be-defined will be required and network will need to adapt rapidly and with minimal impact.

The impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 is an unexpected driver of accelerated adoption of EdTech. For most schools, there was short notice on the closing of schools and the move to home-based learning. Teachers, students, administrators, parents and IT and network engineers were given very little time (if any) to prepare for the change. Networks supporting schools are expected to support new use cases that they were not designed to support overnight – with requirements changing often.

What we’ve learned from this unique and challenging situation is that dependable, high-speed internet connectivity is critical to the success of Australia’s schools and students. Designing networks that can adapt to growing demands for connectivity and bandwidth will become increasingly crucial as we face the rest of the school year and beyond.

But how do we build school networks that can be resilient and adapt to black swan events?

We’ll discuss this in part three of the blog series: The Adaptive Network for Education in Australia.

Cover photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash