Is Virtual K-12 Learning Here to Stay?
There are more than 1.5 billion students whose learning was hampered due to school closures. The magnitude of this challenge is clearly evident with regard to the digital divide in Africa. For example, only 11% of learners in sub-Saharan Africa have a household computer and only 18% have household internet, as compared to the 50% of learners globally who have computers in the home and the 57% who have access to internet.Her Excellency Sahle-Work Zewde, President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and Chair of the International Commission on the Future of Education.
As many have endlessly discussed, COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on K-12 education. Students and teachers, many having no experience with remote education, were forced into a virtual learning (VL) environment. The schools’ data centers had to rapidly evolve into an #edge environment; they were forced to update their equipment, software, telecommunication systems, and internet in order to handle the load. How successful were they and what did it take to hurriedly pull things together? How have they revised their infrastructure strategies in light of the future utilization of remote learning?
The Immediate Pandemic Impact on the Students and Teachers
In our September 2020 blog, an example we described was Mary, a 3rd grade student at Sunnyside School. Mary lives in a predominantly agricultural community. Internet service was metered and provided by a satellite service with such low bandwidth that virtual learning was chaotic at best. In addition, the family’s home computer was old and not up to the dedicated needs a VL program such as Zoom required.
Mary’s teachers were in a similar situation. Their home systems were not able to support multiple VL sessions at one time. Furthermore, most teachers found the VL platforms unfamiliar and intimidating.
The Immediate Pandemonium to the Network
Initially, the school district’s systems had to be evaluated for the increased download and upload speeds that virtual learning requires. District servers had to be upgraded to handle the increased speeds. Each schools’ intermediate distribution frames (IDF) had to be tested for bandwidth capabilities. Wi-Fi access points needed to be upgraded or added.
The School District and Communities Interim Response
One big problem was the availability of Wi-Fi access. Being a predominantly rural area, local townships jumped on board and started providing free Wi-Fi at the local parks. Even in the winter cold, it was not unusual to see a line-up of vehicles filled with bored parents as their children actively participated in a VL session from the passenger seat.
The Federal Communications Commission offered an Emergency Broadband benefit for families and households struggling to afford internet services.
The Department of Public Instruction developed a list of internet offers for families, including maps showing coverage areas. Internet service providers offered free and/or low-cost options that families could use, some even waiving installation fees for new households.
Sunnyside’s school district developed a technology web page with resources, such as a teacher help desk and a student help desk. They created multiple ways to access information such as library media centers. The position of Instructional Technology Coordinator was created. An additional IT staff person was hired.
They embraced new philosophies of learning, such as, “students can learn and complete assessments at their own pace”. Teachers adopted new, innovative approaches to improve their students’ learning experience, whether it was via pre-recording their lessons, holding small group video meetings, or a mix of both.
Sports, conferences, and group activities also became virtual, online experiences.
School District Budgeting
The capital projects fund budget increased by 190%, with the IT budget allocation increasing from 2% in 2019-2020 to 4% in the proposed 2020-2021 budget. While this may sound promising, technology only realized an additional $19,447.84 to the district’s IT budget, a budget designed for 5 schools and 2,460 students. This equated to an additional $16.61 per student.
Approximately 85% of the school budget is provided by the state with the state cap at $10,000 per student for the upcoming budget year. Any additional budget increase is tied to the next election year cycle which is 2021-23.
The terms of the district’s long-term capital improvement trust fund prohibit removing any money for a period of five years after the fund was created. They are in year four of five. So, no borrowing can happen yet.
The Impact of the Cares Act
While Sunnyside’s school district was allocated $349,900 to $369,600, only $240,000 of that has been received. Of that amount, $86,400 has gone to mental health services, $76,910 to internet hot spots, and $46,368 to supplies for technology and PPE. Forty-six thousand for PPE, supplies, and technology? In a pandemic you can guess where most of that money went.
The Results of K-12 Virtual Learning
Due to the switch to VL, it is estimated that only 70% of the reading gains and 50% of the math gains were accomplished as compared to a normal school year. Student engagement is vital to the learning process, and the unexpected jump to VL left many without the ability to learn.
In the words of Sunnyside’s school district, “Technology will never replace great teachers, but technology in the hands of great teachers can be transformational.”
Of concern was the educational staff’s technological fatigue. Forced to learn quickly, they became too comfortable with one or two platforms and felt they “did not need” more technology. Effective education policy will have to take this into account.
The Future of VL in K-12 Schools
Vice Provost for Faculty, Laura Perna (Penn State), said that the upkeep of technological infrastructure and support for students, faculty, and staff can be especially costly. This includes, but is not limited to, the cost of providing support, IT infrastructure, software licenses, and the development of new technological tools.
It is predicted that more schools will implement remote-learning options as research shows that anywhere from 20-55% of parents prefer for their children to learn remotely. Twenty percent of school districts are considering adopting a virtual school as part of their portfolio, all in an effort to benefit those students who typically fall through the cracks. Students and parents may choose to combine VL and in-person classes in an enhanced learning environment. Or, as has been recently seen by the increase in enrollment, online schools may become the new norm.
The Impact of IoT and the Growth of Technology
While the growth of technology is rapid, the ability for schools’ DC infrastructure and IDF to adapt is not as rapid. Capital cost is a huge expense for schools, which have little flexibility in their budgets, with restraints defined by election year results and state budgets.
This is where the impact of IoT may come into play. An estimated 83.2% of 12-17-year-olds have smartphones. Even younger children ages 11-13 (approximately 73%) and 6-10-year-olds (31%) have smartphones. These young people are already used to note-taking (texting), schedule checking, and researching (internet) on their phones. They understand apps better than most of the educators do.
By using apps to learn, with an estimated 10% of a school’s budget taken up by the cost of paper, money could be diverted to “smart” education. Use of the cloud will allow teachers to gather student data and evaluate student needs. Apps such as “ClassDojo” allow parents to see their children’s schoolwork via photos and videos; many of these similar apps are already in use by 95% of K-8 schools in the United States.
So, What Are the Concerns for the Future?
With growth in technology comes an increased demand for power. It’s the servers – the electronic brains – in the cloud, that are massive energy hogs. As more and more products, services, software, and apps move to the cloud, these enormous data centers will use terabytes of electricity. It is estimated that the world’s data centers will need up to 651 terawatt-hours of electricity in the next year.
Large data centers must take into account energy efficiency on multiple levels. Servers need power to run, but they also need power to be cooled to avoid overheating. Improvements in energy efficiency must continue from server, to rack, to room, to building structures.
Virtual and online learning is here to stay. The physical requirements of the traditional school will change. Downsizing is likely to occur as rotational student scheduling continues. The size and design of brick-and-mortar schools will change.
School districts will need greater budgeting flexibility in order to provide rapid responses to technological growth. Adaptive student scheduling will need to be provided, not only to meet the needs of the parent(s), but to spread out and balance the power needs of the data center. Scalable school data centers will need to be the norm, rather than the exception, as districts look to combine, downsize, and in some cases, re-purpose school buildings.
There’s one thing that students, parents, educators, and school districts have all learned: K-12 virtual learning is here to stay – maybe not full time, but definitely as an accepted means of modern education.
1) United Nations Educations, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Futures of Education – Learning to Become, publication date 2020. Her Excellency Sahle-Work Zewde, President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and Chair of the International Commission on the Futures of Education