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Broadband, e-books boost learning
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Fifth-grade teacher Beth Hering (right) examines Hannah Pace’s work on a school-issued iPad last week at John Redd Smith Elementary School. The school issues iPads to students in grades 3 through 5. The students keep electronic textbooks and perform various other tasks with the tablets. (Bulletin photo by Sam Jackson)
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Thursday, December 26, 2013

By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

No more pencils, no more books?

Not quite, but that day may be coming sooner than you think. Provided, of course, there’s a strong enough Internet connection in the classroom.

Digital tools such as laptops and tablets are replacing traditional textbooks in some local classrooms, with more planned, according to Henry County school officials. For such resources, schools and classrooms need a healthy Internet connection, according to Janet Copenhaver, director of technology for the Henry County Public Schools.

“As you go to more and more digital learning, the speed has to be more robust,” she said.

A recent Associated Press report said most digital learning occurs in schools that have rich connectivity to the Internet.

Nearly every school has Internet access, but many schools struggle to keep up with the changes in education due to limited capacity inside schools to transmit data, or bandwidth, the AP reported.

Today, about 80 percent of schools nationwide have Internet capabilities that are too slow, or they are isolated to places such as front offices and computer labs, Richard Culatta, director of education technology at the U.S. Education Department, told the AP.

Many schools have the same amount of connectivity as an average home. That means several hundred children or more operate on an Internet connection similar to that used in a house by four family members. That leads to networks that are slow and prone to crashing.

“There are many examples of fantastic things happening across the country, but they are happening in places where infrastructure is in place that supports these types of innovations,” Culatta told the AP.

While bandwidth had been a problem in recent years, a $16 million infrastructure grant awarded in 2010 to the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative connected 121 K-12 schools in Southside and Southwest Virginia to an existing 800-mile high-speed network.

Henry, Patrick and Pittsylvania county schools all were included in that upgrade, Copenhaver said. Since then, local schools have increased their use of Internet resources.

“As you put more devices on, the bandwidth has to be greater,” she said.

The broadband access improves Internet download speed from 1.5 megabytes per second to greater than 10, which allows greater distance learning opportunities, not to mention gives space for the “bring your own technology” initiative instituted at Bassett High School this fall. That initiative will be added to other county schools in the coming semesters.

“We wouldn’t have even tried” to allow students to connect their laptops, tablets or smartphones to the system before the upgrade, Copenhaver said.

“As soon as we get all the challenges out, we plan to bring it out at the other schools,” she said, with Magna Vista the next in line.

Teh-Way Lee, systems administrator for the county schools, said the county used to connect online through a wireless connection, “but that wasn’t very reliable with bad weather.” The fiber-optic broadband connection allowed for a more stable connection, though each school has a wireless network for students to join, Lee added.

Internet use in schools isn’t just about reading web pages, either, Lee said, especially since many handheld devices are meant to handle various types of media.

“As the technology evolves, we have more devices; iPods, iPads, laptops. It’s not only text, it’s audio and video. All that requires more bandwidth,” he said.

All that connectivity also requires more security, Lee said, both to keep personal information secure and to make sure students are staying on task while on their own devices.

The county’s network has strict filtering of what students see and can access, Lee said.

“We’re always required to have that filtering because we’re an educational institution,” he said. “Besides the filter, we have another tool called Mobile Device Management. That will help us manage all the different mobile devices.”

As it is generally defined on various provider websites, MDM software secures, monitors, manages and supports mobile devices deployed across multiple operators, service providers and enterprises, including online software and connected hardware.

MDM software allows the schools to know what students are doing while they are connected and online, Lee said.

“They can bring their own device, but they have to register. The filtering part will give us a report of what websites are being accessed, and we can fine tune it if that’s the case,” he said.

If students go overboard on their use, the schools can reduce individual bandwidth or restrict access, Lee said. However, exerting that sort of control is rare, he added.

On the whole, “things have gotten much better over the past two years because of our bandwidth,” Superintendent Jared Cotton said, and the county’s ability to be on the front end of a technological revolution in education eliminates one hurdle to educating students effectively.


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