JCPS Preps For High Speed Internet Upgrades, Kentucky Comes Up Short On Tech Support

Technology is on the minds of Kentucky education officials who say they’ve identified nearly 40 school districts—including Jefferson County Public Schools—that are priorities for receiving upgrades to their high speed internet soon.

Kentucky Department of Education officials say state’s public education system has been a nationwide leader in cloud-based computing, but KDE is struggling to keep teachers satisfied and adequate broadband Internet service in schools.

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday says Jefferson County Public Schools is the state’s “number one priority” for technology upgrades that will begin this summer to boost the power for high speed internet, but state officials also warn unless more funding is allocated for technology services next legislative year, services and hardware will deteriorate quickly.

Associate commissioner David Couch told the Kentucky Board of Education last week that there is around $156 million in unmet need for technology services, according to KDE’s 2013-2018 Kentucky Education Technology System (KETS) Master Plan.  There has been $110 million of funds identified to meet that need leaving a $46 million gap.

The KETS plan drives the technology goals for state education and it has historically been $30-$50 million underfunded each year the plan is approved, says Couch.

Now, federal and state funding cuts are causing further delays in the upgrading of high speed internet services, he says. Federal funding cuts have also affected the state’s ability to support technology resource specialists who work with school districts to help them to improve their technology output.

KDE estimates usability and reliability of certain school technology (tablets, desktop and laptops, etc.) will drop around 15 percent annually beginning this year, following funding cuts last year that prevented upgrades to equipment.

“We keep things [technology] in K-12 a lot longer than most companies and organizations, but when they go beyond that point they really drop in speed and reliability,” Couch says.

Close to 70 percent of student workstations across the state will be unreliable and won’t have a high degree of functionality by the end of next year, he says.

“I go to a website, if I have to wait 5, 10, 20 seconds just to bring it up, most of them [teachers] will say that’s too slow,” he says.

This comes at a time when more Kentucky schools are using the Internet for teaching and learning than ever before. Kentucky committed to cloud-based computing earlier this year, which is expected to save the state money and make school districts more efficient, Couch says.

So when the state’s broadband capacity to meet this growth doesn’t expand with the times, it’s a problem, he says.

KDE tends to go through an eight-year cycle in educational technology support, Couch says. In 1990, the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) included funding for KDE’s technology plan. In 1998, the plan had millions of dollars in unmet need and the legislature and governor supported a huge boost in funding. In 2006, there was another crisis mode, including more unmet need and a slowing of high speed internet, Couch says. A bond was issued and was used to fund high speed network and other technology.

Now, KDE will be turning to the legislature in 2014, again, to support upgrades and technology boosts in schools, which teachers say are important.

When results of the anonymous Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) Survey were released last week, it showed overall positive results regarding the working conditions for teachers in schools, but questions related to technology and Internet access and use showed a negative drop in opinion.

In Jefferson County Public Schools, only 61 percent of teachers felt that the “reliability and speed of Internet connections in this school are sufficient to support instructional practices.” In 2011, when the TELL survey was last taken, that rate of agreement was 79 percent.

JCPS is now KDE’s “number one priority,” Couch says. There have been around 40 other districts in the state that are also on the priority list, he says.

KDE has re-bid its high speed network programming contract with AT&T and the state has been able to squeeze more out of that agreement at no extra cost.

The goal is to double the amount of internet power (roughly 9 kb to 18 kb per student) before the 2013-2014 school year and then to double it again (to roughly 50 kb) by the next summer, Couch says.

“By [20]15 if we address these needs in Jefferson, we’ll see improvements in results and improvement in the survey,” Commissioner Holliday said at last week’s state school board meeting.

But those are temporary fixes, Couch says. According the Council of Chief State School Officers, schools should ideally have 100 kb per student.

The way to think about it, he says, is if a multi-lane freeway closes all but one lane and traffic backs up. The same is true with the Internet and it can be frustrating to teach or work with backed up internet traffic, Couch says.

JCPS officials are being briefed for how to respond once that extra power becomes available, he says. And all Kentucky schools will eventually join JCPS with more broadband capacity.

While Couch can’t say what the outcome will be when KDE asks the General Assembly for more technology money next year, state officials are expecting to use the teachers’ TELL Survey as proof of need.

Devin Katayama

Devin Katayama host middays for WFPL and reports on education and other Louisville issues.

@DevinWFPL

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