Democratizing Network Infrastructure to Support Education’s New Normal

The ability to complete schoolwork from home moves to the center of academic success.

GUEST COLUMN | by Rich Weatherby

In the wake of a global health crisis, education has been a notably disrupted vertical with many schools and districts now shifting into online or hybrid models. To put this pivot into perspective, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey has revealed that nearly 93 percent of households with school-age children reported their children engaged in some form of distance learning from home.

Now more than ever, a high-performance network is needed to ensure schooling can continue from afar while offering the best experience and the best chance of success for students. Whether pupils are using school-provided laptops or personal devices, being able to utilize necessary online resources, operate effectively and reliably within digital platforms and remain thoroughly connected is key.

‘Whether pupils are using school-provided laptops or personal devices, being able to utilize necessary online resources, operate effectively and reliably within digital platforms and remain thoroughly connected is key.’

Despite the newly emphasized reliance on digital resources, however, the gaps in technological opportunity that have afflicted underserved areas across the U.S. still remain. Being able to switch to online lessons, while not an easy transition, is convenient — but only if students, administrators and school districts have the ability to capture high levels of educational value. Disparities in online education are bringing the digital divide and its impacts on communities into stark relief as children and adults alike seek to accommodate a new normal. Breaking these patterns of digital inequality is fundamental as children now rely on equal IT opportunity to learn and grow.

How the Pandemic is Amplifying Existing Technological Gaps

Even before the pandemic, the worldwide e-learning market was forecast to surpass $243 billion by 2022, and this disruption is likely to accelerate this upward trend. Now, the ability to complete school work from home no longer plays a supporting role in education — it’s at the center of academic success. Yet, the survey conducted by the Census Bureau investigating schooling during COVID-19 revealed that lower-income households were less likely to rely on online resources when compared to their higher-income counterparts. In households with incomes of $100,000 or more, 85.8 percent of people with children reported using online resources for distance learning, compared to only 65.8 percent of people in households with incomes of less than $50,000.

While it’s difficult to quantify how much this disparity is truly impacting the quality of education, a lack of virtual opportunities likely exacerbates any learning losses already created by the pandemic. Online capabilities add a richness to learning that alternative approaches often can’t — even in 2016, 79 percent of teachers were reporting that technology made a big difference in making learning more interesting for students. Virtual tools help students access greater amounts of information, software programs help with understanding new concepts and streamed video lessons allow for real-time discussions with teachers. When we assess these factors, it’s clear that the questions we ask today no longer center on if these students and institutions without adequate networking will be affected, but how much.

The Role of Robust Networking in Education and How it Can be Achieved

At the core of distance learning is a high-performance network. Virtual, real-time lessons with teachers require high-speed internet access that limits lagging, online testing requires reliable internet that will not fail in the middle of an exam and the huge amounts of student data being generated and shared with teachers requires networks with robust capacity and security. Adequate network infrastructure ensures students and teachers can engage in a wide variety of interactive learning experiences, making state-of-the-art networks a necessity of contemporary schooling — not a luxury. Even beyond the walls of the classroom, municipalities that have proper networking in place benefit from systemic economic advantages due to their ability to support in-demand virtual capabilities, but it comes at a cost that not all can accommodate.

Luckily, government programs like CARES Act Missouri are helping bridge the gaps in rural and underserved communities. Missouri’s CARES Act helps allocate pandemic relief funding toward student connectivity, offering $10,000,000 for extending school network access for families that do not themselves have network infrastructure that is conducive to virtual learning.

In order to implement infrastructure that is up to the e-learning challenge, educational institutions require a provider partner that is experienced with the needs of underserved communities and can deliver solutions that meet their requirements. It’s helpful if the service provider is authorized by E-Rate, a program that provides discounts on data transmission services, internet access services, broadband equipment and basic maintenance for eligible schools and libraries. This offers the advantage of further reducing cost burdens on the institution.

The gaps that exist in networking aren’t going away — in some ways, they’re becoming wider as we all grow more virtually dependent. A new normal requires a new outlook on how we’re serving communities across the country in a time of need. Now, we must prioritize investments and solutions that bridge these gaps to ensure all students can thrive in an era of social distancing and remain equipped with the knowledge and experiences they require.

Rich Weatherby, Director of Enterprise Sales, leads all B2B sales and revenue growth activity for the eastern region of Bluebird Network, including both fiber and data center sales. Before joining Bluebird in 2020, Rich’s experience in communications began in 1987 during his 10 years of service in the USAF. His background includes operations, project management and engineering. Rich enjoys riding his bicycle, attending live music and sporting events, and traveling. He is married with two adult children and one child in high school.


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