Rural schools get an internet speed injection

Issue: Volume 93, Number 14

Posted: 11 August 2014
Reference #: 1H9csr

The world might be a much smaller rock than it used to be, thanks to communications technology, but isolated schools don’t have the option to just knock on the neighbours’ door when the lights go out. It’s critical for rural and semi-rural schools to maintain an effective ‘pipe’ to the outside world through the internet, and as the SNUP/N4L roll-out continues, we speak to two ‘extra-urban’ schools about their experiences.

Though some of our very isolated learning centres in parts of New Zealand may still be battling to provide digitally-enabled learning to a high standard, in the main our rural – or at least semi-rural schools – have barely any deficit to make up these days; the Government’s rural broadband initiative is delivering better broadband to many rural schools and communities.

Foundations in place, the Network for Learning (N4L) Managed Network and SNUP (the School Network Upgrade Project) are able to step in and ensure schools have up-to-date internal networks and all the data capacity they need to enable students to utilise online learning opportunities. Both these schools, following a SNUP upgrade and connection to the N4L Managed Network, can now forget about coming up with ‘work-arounds’, and just get on with it.

Bombay Primary School

Bombay Primary School is a great illustration of the fact that, for rural schools, quality of access to the internet is critical. Because there’s not the population to justify it, there are typically fewer connectivity options, making it more difficult to provide schools with a fast connection that has the bandwidth capacity to meet the voracious needs of a school of 370 young learners.

The school, prior to the SNUP upgrade and N4L connection, had spent some money on improving the device side of the access problem, but these shiny new digital tools turned out to be all but useless due to a creaking network, as principal Paul Petersen explains.

“We’re running roughly 280 Chromebooks, 60 iPads, and 30 laptops and workstations at our school. That’s a tremendous network load. In fact, one of the N4L people told me that schools have a far greater drain on bandwidth than would a corporate office, for example.

“When we made all those purchases, the network was certainly not coping. You would have been lucky if you’d been able to get more than 10 devices connecting.

“Essentially, that meant that teachers couldn’t use the devices in their teaching, and they found it really frustrating; they plan all these rich, engaging lessons, and the network wouldn’t allow them to do what they wanted. It became a serious barrier to learning. It created a ‘pain point’ for teachers, who understandably became fairly disinclined in terms of involving digital technology in the classroom; it was a hurdle that had to be overcome.”

Bombay School made the decision to connect to the N4L Managed Network earlier this year, and Paul says that the major benefit is the most obvious: it functions specifically – and exclusively – to serve schools.

“They seem to ‘get it’. The only issues we’ve really had have been when we want to make adjustments to the filter. N4L have a default list of sites that are blocked; these are determined by category, so all social networking is blocked, for example. There are times when these sites might be necessary for a teacher, so we just email N4L and usually within hours they have ‘whitelisted’ the site we’re after, permanently or temporarily.”

Paul reports that having the same account manager on the other end of the phone has been a real boon, too, particularly as they tend to know how to meet the needs of educators. He says this has not been the case in the past.

An expanding school should be no problem either. Paul says that all the advice he’s been given is that there’s plenty of capacity should the school experience a roll spike.

Paul believes that quality and ubiquity of online learning opportunities are critical for rural and semi-rural schools.

“It’s even more important for rural schools to be super-connected. It doesn’t just connect you with your local community and outlying areas, but the international connection is a big thing. Without this degree of connectivity, kids at Bombay would struggle to get access to these opportunities at school.”

Onewhero Area School

When Onewhero Area School made the move to N4L, they had their own requirements. As the school had previously positive experiences with a hardware filtering solution, they decided to observe the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke...’ The way Onewhero wanted to teach also meant that exceptions to the standard N4L package were necessary.

“We had to make a number of changes to the N4L setup; the filtering needed to be turned down, and our library’s e-book platform meant that we needed to allow for access to books offsite. This meant a few set-up teething problems, but they’re now dealt with,” says principal Greg Fenton.

Christine O’Keefe is head of digital technology at Onewhero. She says that the N4L Managed Network has proved to be extremely stable, which is a key requirement of schools. Echoing the sentiments of Paul Petersen at Bombay Primary, she says that after the school got ‘SNUP-ed’ in late 2013, teachers could finally expect that the rich lessons they have in their head are do-able at school.

“Before SNUP, our network was just really slow. We didn’t have any kind of fast connection. We didn’t have a hope of putting an entire class onto the network. Basically, any more than 10 connections and the whole thing ground to a halt.”

Paul backs this up, and adds that ambitions like BYOD and 1:1 access simply weren’t achievable at the time.

“We really struggled to get teacher buy-in, which is completely understandable. There was honestly not much e-learning around the school. We’re school-wide now, and we have BYOD right across the school.”

Coren Hopoi is deputy principal at Onewhero and is on the school’s BYOD and e-learning steering committee. She says that the N4L portal – ‘Pond’ – while in its infancy right now, is useful to her practice already.

“We’re one of the pioneer schools on Pond. I’ve been utilising it, and it’s already been a real help for me. It’s very exciting; I see so much potential in terms of teachers being able to access great resources that have been recommended by colleagues across the country.

“At the moment, it’s a sharing portal. Like any site of this nature, it’s self-perpetuating. The more teachers that use it and upload to it, the more people will get interested in it, and the richer will be the content.”

Greg agrees with the idea that it’s still critical for rural schools to work hard in keeping up with technology because a great connection means the tyranny of distance becomes a non-issue.

“Yes, it’s very important that rural schools in particular are ‘super connected’. We were essentially unable to use our school network prior to the upgrade, in any meaningful way. The internet has enabled rural schools to almost completely cancel any disadvantage students may be subject to, living in a more isolated setting, but the devices are useless without the access. It might as well be 1995 again.

“In the end, a great network and devices simply removes the ‘rural’. We can do anything that any other school can do. In the past, we’d talked about video conferencing, for example, but to all intents and purposes things like that were impossible. Now that we can offer to our students anything that any other school in the country can offer, we’re able to reassure parents that their children are getting the same access to opportunities as anyone else.”

As at 28 July 2014:
1652 eligible schools had been upgraded through SNUP
642 schools were connected to the N4L Managed Network

By 2016:
All eligible schools will have completed a SNUP upgrade
All schools will have been offered a connection to the N4L Managed Network

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 3:25 pm, 11 August 2014

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