A New Education Norm, a New Challenge

If there’s anything we learned over the past several months of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that access to high-speed Internet is critical to remote learning in both K-12 and higher learning education. Unfortunately, the current situation has also shed light on the digital divide and the need to deploy high-speed networks for unserved and underserved communities.

While lack of broadband access has long been a problem in rural America, the transition to remote learning has exacerbated the divide between those who have access to devices and connectivity and those who don’t, impacting students, teachers and parents alike. The crux of the situation is a combination of economic hardship, lack of funding and lack of coverage. Here at BCL IT Consulting, we can’t even begin to tell you how many calls we have received from school districts asking to set up fiber networks, remote Wi-Fi hot spots or for advice on how to provide connectivity to those at a disadvantage in this new environment.

One option is the deployment of mobile and remote Wi-Fi hotspots on school buses that travel throughout communities and provide students with Internet access for downloading and uploading assignments, accessing remote classrooms and other online educational activities. Wi-Fi hotspots can also be deployed in public places like parks, libraries and community centers. Another option is the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) that allows schools to build their own private indoor or outdoor 4G/5G network. It’s essentially a band of the radio frequency spectrum (3.5 to 3.7 GHz) that the FCC has freed up for use as long as it doesn’t interfere with existing licensed users. Through providers like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, CBRS can provide local cell service to a community by mounting small cell antennas to buildings every 2 to 3 miles.

Of course, lack of funding remains a hindrance, especially with E-Rate funds not currently covering remote hotspots (although proposals are underway to extend the program). Some schools are therefore partnering with service providers, private business and community organizations to help subsidize devices and connectivity. Beaverton Oregon School District reached out to community businesses to create “Wi-Fi maps” to identify safe places that students can access the Internet, while Omaha Nebraska public schools partnered with Cox Communications to renovate a school bus to serve as a mobile learning lab capable of hosting 50 to 75 wireless connections at a time.

Even when students return to in-person instruction, the need to support teachers and students in self-quarantine will likely continue throughout the 2020-2021 school year and beyond. There’s little doubt that remote learning is now an integral part of education, and access to devices and connectivity is not the only challenge schools face. They also need to identify the right software platforms for delivering instruction, and that can vary based on the age of the student and the subject being taught. Educators are faced with the unfamiliar territory of evaluating the likes of Zoom, Skype or the myriad of all-in-one cloud-based systems to provide the best virtual experience possible.

BCL has been helping K-12 and higher education understand the changing nature of technology and identify and deploy the right solution for more than 25 years. From strategic consulting and project management to design and engineering, we are here to help you navigate the new education norm and deploy the right technology for your needs and budget. Tell us about the remote learning challenges you’re facing.