Broadband in education – the promise and the pitfalls

Admin-UFB copyIt’s an exciting time for Kiwi schools. Now that the Government has invested $1.35 billion in ultra-fast broadband (UFB), we’re literally on the brink of a revolutionary new world

of internet-based applications and services.

We know it’s going to transform the way we teach and learn. What we don’t know yet is precisely how. With the infrastructure in place, all kinds of as yet un-thought of opportunities will become possible.

According to ex Education Minister Anne Tolley, our schools are set to become among the most “wired” in the world. New Zealand is often an early adopter of new technologies. In a sense, we’re guinea pigs for the rest of the world.

When it comes to technology transformations as significant as this, there are always risks. If you’re a school administrator, you need to be aware of them.

Some issues may only arise as new applications do, however there are some you can prepare for now. For schools, the main risks relate to uncontrolled cost and inappropriate content.

Network for Learning

By the end of the decade, ultra-fast broadband infrastructure will reach 75 per cent of New Zealanders. However, connecting schools and health services is a priority. By mid-2015, the Government aims to have an incredible 97.7 per cent of schools and 99.9 per cent of students connected.

Through the Ministry of Education, the Government is establishing a “Network for Learning” – a dedicated network for schools which will run over the UFB, enabling online collaboration and easy access to education-based services.

Over the next ten years the Network for Learning is expected to cost between $300 million and $400 million. The first 221 urban schools, with a combined roll of almost 100,000 students, are due to be connected to the network by July this year.

More information about the network can be found on the Ministry’s website:

Big changes are in store

Together, UFB and the Network for Learning will transform the way education is delivered and managed. Tales of the classroom we know will soon be relegated to the non-dog-eared, pristine pages of history eBooks and “remember when?” conversations.

As ex Education Minister Anne Tolley said last year, “Location will no longer be a barrier for accessing courses. For the very first time every rural and urban school will be able to connect with each other to collaborate and share resources and best practice.”

With the network in place, collaboration will be able to happen via high-definition internet-based video conferencing. Visual resources – from eBooks to video – sourced from other schools or central repositories such as the Ministry or Te Papa will be just a mouse-click away in the classroom.

Students and teachers will be able to engage in real time with colleagues anywhere in the country, or the world.

It will enable classroom computer monitors to be transformed into interactive whiteboards so learning experiences can be shared across locations, either within a school or between schools.

Toll bills will be slashed as schools switch to internet-based (IP) voice calling services. Simply browsing the web from the classroom will improve as faster broadband speeds and better bandwidth enable websites to appear onscreen as the designers intended.

There’ll be no more waiting for websites to load. Even sending and receiving email will be improved and streamlined, with better bandwidth allowing instant transmission.

With enhanced bandwidth, schools can also install or improve campus-wide Wi-Fi hotspots to enable seamless connectivity and internet access (to approved sites and online resources) for students from their own laptops, or mobile devices.

And if students can use their own devices, schools can reduce their expenditure on computers, allowing more students to be online simultaneously at peak times, and improve learning opportunities by providing connectivity for students who may not have internet access at home.

The planned UFB-based Network for Learning will also open up an expanded range of productivity-boosting and cost-saving “cloud computing” services for schools. Cloud computing – the use of broadband to access offsite computing resources – can deliver everything from parent portals and student learning systems through to email management and data back-up services, all accessed via a standard web browser.

Cloud services will give schools access to a powerful range of computing resources without the need to invest in infrastructure such as servers, storage or traditional “shrink-wrapped” software. Instead of making that type of capital investment in IT, schools can simply subscribe to cloud services, typically for a monthly fee and pay as they go, potentially making savings during holiday periods.

The Network for Learning also gives schools the tools they need to control exactly how their local school network operates. This includes regulating the type of files and content that can be transmitted to or from their network.

Schools will also be able to control when components of the network are operational. For example, the hours during which a school’s Wi-Fi network is active and available. Content can be restricted on a time basis; no more Facebook outside designated breaks.

The downside

Everything has a down-side. And despite revolutionising school technology, improving productivity and transforming learning, teaching and working, a broadband-network-enabled future raises some issues.

Potentially the biggest bill you’ve ever seen

Under the UFB initiative (and the associated Rural Broadband Initiative for smaller communities) all state and state-integrated schools receive a fully-funded connection to the Government’s fibre-optic broadband network. Schools will have to pay to use the Network for Learning in the same way they currently pay an internet service provider for internet access.

However, the Ministry of Education is promising schools will be able to make significant savings through the network because of the economies of scale which will be possible as a result of schools’ combined purchasing power.

The Ministry has said it hopes to eventually offer schools an “uncapped” service over the Network for Learning, meaning schools could send and receive an unrestricted amount of data. Until that becomes a reality, however, schools transitioning to the UFB and the Network for Learning face the risk of some potentially scary bills from excessive data consumption as teachers, students and school administrators make use of the scintillating online opportunities that will open up to them.

Unsuitable content

With faster broadband providing students and staff with easier access to internet content, administrators also need to be even more aware of the potential for inappropriate material to be transmitted over school networks. As well as the danger of objectionable material, schools need to be alert to issues such as illegal sharing of copyrighted electronic content.

Young pirates

Already, just weeks after the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act came into force late last year, there were reports that the first school had received an infringement notice under the Act. Schools, like individuals and other organisations, face having their internet connections severed under the “three strikes” provisions of the Act if copyright holders complain the connection has been used to pirate content.

Don’t panic

For every problem, there’s a solution. And while you may have turned slightly pale reading the potential costs and risks, the good news is that there are solutions to address these issues.

Internet service providers such can provide content management and content filtering solutions to minimise network abuse and control traffic so your school doesn’t receive unexpected data bills. Internet service providers are working closely with several schools to tailor packages specifically to help them make the most of the fibre roll out.

Content filtering tools enable a school to restrict website visits over its network to a defined “white list” of approved sites. The sending and receiving of suspicious content – or large files – can also be restricted, with parameters set to meet your school’s requirements.

However, with broadband network enhancements just months away for some schools, it’s important to act soon. With just a small amount of preparation the risks can be addressed and your school can embrace the technology and the tremendous potential it offers.

Kelvin Hussey is General Manager of CallPlus. He has worked extensively in the telecommunications industry both in New Zealand and in the United Kingdom for such brands as Cable and Wireless Communications, Energis Communications and Vodafone New Zealand.

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School News is not affiliated with any government agency, body or political party. We are an independently owned, family-operated magazine.
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