The Learning Accelerator Blog/Reynoldsburg City Schools' Internet Journey


Reynoldsburg City Schools' Internet Journey

by Lisa Duty on December 5 2013

How one all-American school district is successfully connecting its students to the future of learning.

Schools that personalize learning work differently than traditional schools where kids march through the system in age cohorts, receive instruction at the same level, in the same mode, and at the same time. Known for its inventiveness and commitment to personalized learning, Reynoldsburg City Schools’ (RCS) latest transformation is fueled by blending the best of teacher-led instruction with game-changing technology that is revolutionizing the pace, depth and velocity of learning for its 6,500 demographically diverse students across 14 Ohio schools.

RCS Superintendent Steve Dackin cites blended learning as a major strategy to maximize the impact of great teachers and an opportunity to get the most growth and achievement for each child in the shortest amount of time. However, the right tools can only help teachers differentiate instruction and meet the individual needs of each child when they are powered with reliable and robust connectivity. The right infrastructure is the necessary foundation for blended learning.

In new blended learning environments like Reynoldsburg’s, personalization won’t happen at scale if students and teachers can’t get online. Experts like Evan Marwell of EducationSuperHighway note that for students to take full advantage of blended learning, schools need 100 megabits (Mbps) or more of Internet access per 1,000 students today and one gigabit (Gbps) by 2017. Unfortunately, nearly 40 million of the nation’s 55 million K-12 students are currently without sufficient broadband. As Will Kerr, RCS Director of Technology, explains, “Right now we have dirt roads, but what we need are ten-lane highways.”

If you turn it on and it doesn’t work, you can’t be an early adopter

Slow Internet speeds frustrate the pace of student learning - especially web-based projects and video-rich opportunities - and they can thwart a teacher's ability to draw on assessment data in real time to inform the needs of individual students. The more digitally complex an activity, the larger the pull on bandwidth. Either you accept the wait, reduce demands on bandwidth, or you increase your connection to the Internet. Increasing connectivity was the only answer for RCS.

Time is precious, Kerr explains, and “the cost of a failing connection is often teacher trust, and that’s a price we’re unwilling to pay.” A decade ago educational content used to live in the building - in books - but now applications live out on the Internet. The world has moved to the cloud. Reliable access to the cloud has become a matter of equity; districts like Reynoldsburg are on a mission to remove any roadblocks between the student and the content.

The SchoolSpeedTest

Kerr performed an in-depth analysis of RCS’s connectivity beginning last spring, reporting that the district was paying $17,000 per month for WAN connectivity that was insufficient to consistently power the types of digital learning tools that students and teachers needed.

Reynoldsburg then took EducationSuperHighway’s (ESH) free SchoolSpeedTest to confirm the capacity at each school, providing third-party validation of RCS’ analysis. The Reynoldsburg plan to analyze their connectivity provides a valuable roadmap for other school districts eager to upgrade their connections. Highlights include:

At RCS, all 14 schools participated in the SchoolSpeedTest:

  • 15 one-minute tests were taken per site, on average
  • 60% of the tests were taken by teachers

EducationSuperHighway evaluated RCS’ network readiness against two objectives:

  1. Networks support school-wide online assessments in addition to current usage
  2. Networks support day-to-day use of blended learning models school-wide

The result: All networks in Reynoldsburg had capacity for online assessment and digital learning at some level:

  • Five schools met the standard for basic online assessment
  • Two schools met the standard for emerging digital learning
  • Seven schools met the highest standard of connectivity, allowing for full 1:1, media-rich content, robust web-based projects/courses, student management, and conferencing. This is the gold standard of readiness—supporting every student in having a blended learning experience for most of the school day.

Reynoldsburg is committed to meeting the highest standard of connectivity in each of its 14 schools, so Will Kerr took the next critical steps to finding the right Internet infrastructure and service provider for the district.

Kerr’s sustainable approach: From RFP to 10-year plan

Will Kerr went in search of every roadblock, every bottleneck, in pursuit of an uninhibited connection between student and educational content. Based on economics and forward-thinking, it was clear that the district needed access to more fiber – either by purchasing its own or leasing directly from an Internet service provider. Kerr has seen bandwidth utilization grow continuously and knew that adding more capacity would just accelerate that growth. Reynoldsburg needed a future-proof solution – an investment that would not only add significant bandwidth now, but also enable upgrades in the years to come.

Kerr started at the edge of the network and moved in toward the user with these high expectations in mind. He immediately confronted a critical decision. RCS had a choice—they could try to convince their state-connected middle-man/Internet provider to do things differently, or they could try to go to the market on their own for better connectivity and a better price. RCS decided it wanted not only a bigger “pipe” but zero latency and better security. They started looking for the cheapest provider.

Note that no one was readily serving RCS’s needs, and it was a cage-busting decision not to accept the status quo—not to just do what they had always done—using the state middleman. This called for leaving some money on the table as they walked away from the old deal where each school site had long been incentivized with $1,000 per site to use that middleman. RCS decided that the “brand” and who ultimately gave them the Internet didn’t really matter. The district needed more capacity, consistent quality, and the lowest price.

Kerr and business manager Cliff Hetzel sat down to develop a prudent financial plan. The most important decision they made early on was to think long-term – they wanted to invest today in a system that would serve students well into the future. In order to evaluate the many options that this long-term view put on the table, including light and dark fiber solutions, they evaluated the financial picture of each option on a 10-year time frame. Armed with a compelling business case, Kerr and his team took the proposal to their board. Next they developed a clear RFP and evaluated the responses based on their long-term cost recovery and capacity goals.

The end result: 100x better and money saved

The Reynoldsburg story is about powering up opportunities for students; it means faster and more reliable Internet access, and students and teachers with immediate access to the tools they need to personalize learning. But it’s also a story about smart leadership and cost-savings. At a time when you can spend a lot of money on broadband and still be dissatisfied with your service, Kerr reports that Reynoldsburg will now be paying only $11,000 per month (down from $17,000) for 100x more broadband capacity. That’s a savings of $6,000 per month, $72,000 per year and $720,000 over ten years. Reynoldsburg had anticipated that it could fund the purchase of its own fiber by harnessing cost savings from a better service agreement, but the best proposal ended up being one that didn’t require Reynoldsburg to make the capital investment yet – meaning the savings are just plain savings.

In five years, Kerr anticipates that the district might still want to purchase its own fiber but two unanswered questions have good potential of being sorted out by that time: 1) Will E-Rate help pay for such a purchase? and 2) Will the City of Reynoldsburg and its partners be successful in their attempt to snag a connection to Ohio’s state-of-the-art OARnet fiber backbone (which provides broadband to the state’s higher education, health care, public broadcasting and government entities but is not yet available directly to school districts). The former would reduce the cost of Reynoldsburg’s upfront investment and the latter would add tremendous value for the district.

Reynoldsburg will continue to monitor and grow its capacity as the future of learning unfolds. Meanwhile, Kerr shares these key recommendations for school districts looking to rethink and upgrade their broadband capacity:

Kerr’s Top Five

1. Reach out to EducationSuperHighway early and take their SchoolSpeedTest. Review the ESH Network Snapshot to understand the current state of your network infrastructure. Visit their Internet Pricing Portal to see aggregate cost data and benchmark prices for Internet connectivity and equipment.

2. Get your organizational allies (business manager, superintendent) on the same page. Their support is essential throughout the bidding process as vendors may try to go above a technology director’s head.

3.Clear communication at all levels is critical. Once clear priorities and budgets have been established, the district is better equipped to negotiate with vendors.

4. Keep your options open. Be willing to consider multiple ways of meeting your bandwidth needs. The cost of a particular service might not be what you expect depending on competitor motivation. Reynoldsburg ultimately chose a vendor that did not appear to have the competitive advantage going in. Another company already had fiber in place, but the winner was so eager to access the school market that it was willing to absorb the capital investment of laying its own fiber and still offered a significantly better price to the district.

5. Follow the letter of the law. Do not risk exposing any vulnerability to competitors who might seek to derail a process that is not going their way, and do not risk undoing all the work that you've done with a small mistake. Make sure you understand E-Rate bidding rules and provide vendors with all the information they need up front. Leave enough time for a second round of bidding, as that's when vendors really get competitive.

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