Solving the connectivity problem in schools
Natalie Duffield says local authorities need to help schools choose the best ICT equipment for the needs of pupils.
In today’s digital age it is extremely important that students have a comprehensive ICT education in order to prepare them for success in life after school. Yet recent research from the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) has shown that more than half of UK state schools have poor access to ICT and computers.
Most shockingly, the research revealed that 65 percent of primary schools and 54 percent of secondary schools consider themselves to be under-resourced in WiFi connectivity – heavily limiting how effective schools can be when initiating IT strategies.
The statistics of this report are particularly disconcerting when you consider that the government is currently pushing for greater education in technology in order to bridge the skills gap much of industry sees.
This year the UK became the first country in the world to make computer programming a compulsory part of the curriculum.
Whilst the report did show some positive steps, including an increase in the number of computer units and the introduction of tablet technology in schools, these improvements really mean very little if pupils cannot use these tools to connect to the internet.
Connectivity problems on this scale mean that there is a real risk of a digital divide, as students being educated in environments with poor web access will not develop essential technology skills.
As Carole Wright, the director of BESA, has said “classroom connectivity to an online world of knowledge and resources should be a right for every student in their place of learning and not a lottery”.
The situation needs to improve quickly in order to ensure that pupils aren’t being hindered by the poor technology available to them. While there is no easy fix, there are changes that could be made that would improve the situation significantly.
Firstly, when selecting their WiFi, schools need to make sure that their hardware is up to the job of providing simultaneous connectivity to many pupils on multiple devices at once.
Installing an effective WiFi network in a school is not just a case of putting a few WiFi access points in the corridors – it requires far more robust technology. In fact, most WiFi solutions are not up to the challenge of providing the distribution levels needed for a school’s high-density requirements.
The issue many schools have is that they source different parts of the solution from different providers.
Schools that are buying basic WiFi hardware from one niche supplier and then bolting on other parts of the solution – such as internet provision, inter-school connectivity and classroom wireless interaction equipment – are buying into a heap of problems.
Firstly, when schools create a patched up system like this, there are likely to be gaps. Secondly, there will almost immediately be problems of maintenance as there isn’t a company who can take responsibility for the overall solution. This results in a perfect storm of poor quality WiFi, which is extremely difficult to maintain when problems inevitably develop.
Even when buying everything from one supplier, schools must tread carefully – as many large companies use multiple third parties in an attempt to provide the “total” solution.
Schools therefore have to do their research around who they are buying their technology from in order to find out exactly what they are getting.
Secondly, schools need to make sure their wireless infrastructure is supported by a good connection to the internet. The BESA research revealed that 42 percent of primary schools and 31 percent of secondary schools are also underresourced in broadband provision. It is important that schools have the fastest internet connections possible, as they need a good upload speed as well as download speed.
For consumers, a poor upload speed is not a big deal – providing the download speed is up to scratch.
However, in schools, fast upload speed is imperative, as it enables teachers and students to share material online – a practice which is now being done in more and more schools.
A fast upload speed also allows teachers to share materials between schools and campuses, creating a more collaborative education system.
Unfortunately, a good uplink speed is expensive, and many schools find the price too prohibitive.
However, it is something that the government should be investing in, as the extensive teaching resources it would release and the collaboration it would encourage would benefit the whole education system.
It is important that the government facilitates a standard of internet access across the board in education, in order to avoid some schools reaping the benefits of new resources, whilst others fall behind.
Ultimately, schools need to be given more guidance in helping them choose which technologies are right for them. With very little support available to help schools decide which solution is the best one, many choose entirely based on price – enabling them to tick the “WiFi provision” box within budget. But going on cost alone is not the answer – the key thing schools need to look for is exactly what is being provided.
The challenge, however, is that those in charge are often not able to make an informed decision when choosing their technology. The BESA report revealed that 60 percent of primary schools surveyed identified a need for teachers to receive assessment training over the coming year – showing that by-and-large there are a lot of teachers who need help in this area.
Local authorities must now support schools in making these decisions – giving them all the information they need, in order to provide the best resources for their students.
Those who are making the decisions need to be educated on exactly what they should be purchasing in terms of broadband and WiFi, in order to avoid them falling into traps such as patchy networks, or inadequate internet speeds.
It is predicted that by 2020 there will be shortage of up to 900,000 ICT professionals across Europe and it is therefore imperative that those in school now develop the skills they need in order to thrive in a technologically advanced world.
Education in ICT has never been more important, and the skills of the future generation shouldn’t be squandered because schools cannot connect to the internet.
The government needs to recognise this issue and give schools enough information as possible for them to provide the resources necessary.
Natalie Duffield is chief executive of supplier intechnologyWiFi
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