Lee Marsden looks at the ‘connectivity gap’ – and why it matters in education
Wi-Fi has become a standard part of modern life, with most of us able to access the internet in a multitude of different places, including at home, work, at the train station and even in the local coffee shop. Hailed by many as the ‘fourth utility’ – broadband is an essential part of modern life, vital to a thriving society and economy.
However, this is not the case in our schools. A staggering 65% of primary schools and 54% of secondary schools suffer from a lack of proper Wi-Fi connectivity. These figures have lead to a ‘connectivity gap’ or ‘digital divide’ – along with concerns that pupils are being held back because of being denied access to innovative and effective digital learning.
A study in 2013 by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) concluded that school Wi-Fi was not fit for the 21st century. A study a year later by the same organisation found that over half of UK state schools have poor web access, which is hampering the ability to teach IT skills, despite the pressure to establish digitally sharp pupils. Although digital learning has been on the rise for years, technology by its very nature can change incredibly quickly. This makes it incredibly difficult for school staff to follow and catch up with, creating an ongoing challenge.
A right, not a lottery
In this day and age, it is of great concern that children are denied access to effective digital learning because of a lack of broadband connectivity in schools. Digital and IT skills are vital to the transition between education and the workplace. It is now a shared ethos that an online world of knowledge and resources should be a right for every student in their place of learning and should not come down to a postcode lottery of ineffective ‘not-spots’. Areas where schools are struggling with bandwidth issues are generally rural and remote areas including Cumbria in England, East Ayrshire in Scotland and Gwynedd in Wales.
The problem worsens when parents and students (and even teachers) increasingly expect schools to offer the same level of Wi-Fi performance and speed as many have in their own homes. A fast speed is crucial as it allows teachers to both download resources but also to upload and share content online, a practise now occurring a lot more frequently.
In addition, with more and more children bringing smartphones, tablets and laptops into classrooms, schools have a real challenge to manage and deliver a seamless, secure and high-performance wireless connection to each user on the network.
Invest in the best
Things have come a long way since the times of interactive whiteboards. Whilst you may still spot these in some schools, it is the latest in broadband technology that IT departments must get their hands on to ensure the best coverage. The newest 802.11ac spectrum and smart antenna equipment is easy to roll out and are becoming the industry standard. This type of technology ensures that connectivity is shared out simultaneously between many pupils on different devices at once. Even better, these technologies are now affordable, making them accessible and within real reach of schools who otherwise may struggle to invest in the latest up-to-date technology.
However, it’s not enough for schools to invest in the first vendor that offers them a good deal on the latest tech. A good vendor is supportive from first contact, through the sales process and beyond – allowing the school to keep up to date with the latest technology developments, ensuring they are not falling behind. Therefore, schools should be educated to choose a vendor that can help them get the most for their money and also support them in the future.
With pupils as young as six using their own computers and mobile devices in schools, it’s clear that IT departments also need to implement a secure and safe internet infrastructure that will protect children of all ages. Those who are making the decisions need to be educated to learn exactly what they should be purchasing in terms of broadband and security products, in order to avoid them falling into traps such as patchy networks that could invite in a virus, or inadequate internet speeds.
For primary schools or those smaller rural establishments that do not have a dedicated IT department in place, this becomes a difficult challenge by putting teachers and staff under pressure to make decisions that could impact children’s exposure to potentially unsuitable online material. Schools need to adequately support their staff and realise that even the most budget-stricken departments can still provide a system that is affordable, yet still advanced, with sophisticated obstruction from harmful viruses and inappropriate content.
More positively, it has been reported than technology budgets are growing in schools and will be at an average of £14,450 per primary school and £64,400 in a typical secondary school by the end of 2016. However, with so many schools now falling behind, will this new stance come a little too late?
Broadband speeds are vital to support effective technology adoption for pupils and for teaching. The government must step up and address this as an urgent priority – but must make a conscious effort to roll out better technology in education across the board. If this does not happen, some schools and their pupils will inevitably fall behind. All schools deserve to get the best high speed broadband available to support teaching, wherever they are.
ACTIONS SCHOOLS SHOULD TAKE TO IMPROVE CONNECTIVITY RIGHT NOW:
Run a connectivity check
Broadband speed can be affected by a number of different factors including the technology used to deliver it to the premises and the type of connection you use to connect your device to your router. Running a simple speed test can usually diagnose what’s causing a sluggish connection.
A hotspot hub
Investing in several access points that connect to the premise’s central network is a simple and affordable way to help the connection stretch that bit further across the school.
Check devices are in shape
Too many programmes and old, outof- date software on both teacher and pupil devices can really slow things down. Run regular ‘health checks’ on all devices to ensure browser plug-ins are up to date and that not too much space is taken up with unnecessary clutter.
Install anti-virus software
A virus is a sure-fire way to ensure the school’s devices slow right down. It’s a good idea to install anti-virus software to ensure full protection against malware, spyware, phishing and other Internet threats.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
By Lee Marsden is EU President at ZyXEL (www.zyxel.com/uk/en)
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