Money, priorities, distance contribute to schools' digital divide

The Fresno BeeJune 24, 2014 

The educational technology landscape in the central San Joaquin Valley is marked by a chasm between haves and have-nots -- a digital divide that leaves some school districts, schools and their students and teachers on unequal footing.

From the numbers of computers available in schools to the speeds at which classrooms and campuses can connect to the Internet, significant differences exist within the Valley.

The digital divide is somewhat blurry, however. Unlike sharp distinctions between urban and rural neighborhoods, or rich and poor communities, technology availability and access is much more nuanced -- shades of gray, rather than a clear demarcation between black and white.

"We are all doing our best, given the limitations of funding and resources, to keep up with the changes and bring relevant technology into classrooms for teachers and students," said Dan Resciniti, chief technology officer for Clovis Unified School District.

OVERVIEW: Central San Joaquin Valley districts making a huge investment in technology

The Valley's two largest districts, Fresno and Clovis unifieds -- illustrate the differences.

Across Fresno Unified School District -- the fourth-largest public school district in California with about 74,000 students -- computers are plentiful. In the 2012-13 school year, the district had almost 13,800 computers that were less than four years old, an average of about six students for every computer.

To see Internet connection speeds for your school or school district, scroll to the bottom of this story.

But as in many districts, those computers are not evenly distributed. Several Fresno Unified campuses enjoy a student-to-computer ratio of less than 2-to-1, while other schools have a ratio of as many as 20 or 30 students per computer.

Meanwhile, in Clovis Unified School District, 38 campuses last year boasted eyebrow-scorching Internet connections of 1 gigabyte per second, according to the California K-12 High-Speed Network, a consortium that helps school districts across the state increase the speed and capacity of their Internet connections. But eight Clovis Unified schools languished with connections that are antiquated by comparison -- T1 phone lines with data speeds of 1.54 megabytes per second, or about 1/649 the speed of the faster connections.

Classroom computers

For small districts, including single-school districts in rural areas, the addition of just a few computers in classrooms can make a dramatic difference in the student-to-computer ratio.

Some smaller districts in the Valley boast better student-to-computer ratios than their larger brethren, including the Kit Carson Elementary district east of Hanford and Allensworth Elementary in western Tulare County -- each with ratios of fewer than two students per computer.

As districts cope with new state education requirements that demand tech instruction starting as early as kindergarten, "it's kind of a scramble in some respects," said Will Kimbley, an educational technology specialist with the Tulare County Office of Education. "It's a matter of stretching the dollars they have to bring technology in."

Some Tulare County schools are refreshing their computer labs, while others are investing in low-cost laptop or notebook computers for classrooms, Kimbley said. Other districts have a hard time finding the money even to do that.

RELATED: Parlier High students rave over iPad tablets

The reasons for uneven distribution of computers within larger multi-school districts can vary. In Fresno Unified, chief technology officer Kurt Madden said, "a lot of it is up to the school sites themselves." Each school adopts an annual plan that is drawn up by teachers, staff and parents and sets priorities for each year, he said. "Some schools place a heavy emphasis on technology, and others have not."

While some studies suggested a connection between technology and student success, Madden said, "throwing a bunch of technology in a classroom does not equal student achievement."

Instead, he said, technology is just one of many tools that teachers use to personalize learning for their students. "It can be an accelerator, and allow teachers to provide more individualized learning," Madden added. "But it's not a silver bullet. We don't even like to push for a 1-to-1 (student-to-computer) ratio."

But other factors are forcing Fresno Unified's hand, Madden said. The rise of Apple's iPad and other tablet devices, and the popularity among students of smartphones are displacing more traditional desktop and laptop computers, both in schools and in students' homes. And then there is the state's new emphasis on teaching technology and using computers for testing.

"We're pushing this year to purchase 15,000 tablets with attached keyboards for students to take the tests" and use in their classes, Madden said. "That's upping the number of computers in the classrooms and gets us closer to 3-to-1."

RELATED: Fresno State readies for tablet experiment

At Clovis Unified, the decision to buy about 6,500 new computers to accommodate the Common Core testing was a complicated one, Resciniti said.

"It's not about the device, it's about what you want it to do," he said. In various committees, educators and administrators had differing priorities for what they wanted from new machines, from the ability to make movies to word processing and online Internet research.

"We decided in committee to choose the device that was most flexible and still be able to support the testing," Resciniti said. That ended up being a 14-inch laptop with the same touchscreen capabilities that students are used to on smartphones or tablets.

Money always is a consideration, no matter if it's a large or small district. Ideally, Resciniti said, computers should be replaced every three years because operating systems, hardware and software all become outdated very quickly.

"We try to get five to six years out of our computers, and we have some out there that are seven or eight years old," he said. "The idea is to squeeze as much life as we can out of these things, because we just can't afford to buy everyone a new computer every three years."

Connection speeds

Another aspect of the digital divide is the speed at which schools can connect to the Internet -- something that is taking on greater importance as the state focuses on delivering standardized student testing online instead of paper-and-pencil tests, and as teachers look online to download instructional materials or make use of interactive resources.

RELATED: Digital literacy resources for parents, teachers and students

At one extreme is Lindsay Unified in Tulare County, where all 11 school campuses have the capability to connect at up to 10 Gbps. At the other end of the spectrum are a handful of small, isolated districts where a lack of broadband infrastructure leaves them stranded with Internet connections that are slower than 10 Mbps.

Clovis Unified represents a middle ground in the Valley.

Once upon a time, a T1 connection of 1.54 Mbps was considered fast. Now it's a pothole in the slow lane of the information superhighway, falling short of even the Federal Communications Commission's rather modest definition of "broadband" as being at least 4 Mbps.

"It's remarkable that even in Clovis, which is a progressive and technologically rich district, there are still schools that only have T1 lines," said Teri Sanders, senior director of educational technology for the Imperial County Office of Education. Imperial County administers the California K-12 High Speed Network.

That's changing, however. Resciniti said Clovis Unified has upgraded its campuses' broadband infrastructure in phases over the past few years, starting with high schools and middle schools, and then with elementary schools within the Clovis city limits. The final phase, bringing 1 Gbps speed to elementary schools outside of Clovis proper, is due to be completed this month.

Through the K-12 High Speed Network's hubs in all 58 counties, districts can beef up their schools' connections to the Internet to handle the additional demands that assessment tests will put on bandwidth.

Last year, the consortium spent almost $13 million on its efforts; this year, the network has an additional $26.7 million in one-time money from the state "for districts that are having trouble doing computer-adopted assessments," Sanders said. That money is being distributed as grants to solve connectivity problems.

"Over the past several years, progressive districts understood they want to change the way they teach students by using computers," Sanders said. "In the last couple of years, even districts that weren't moving in that direction are being moved by computer-adapted testing."

Resciniti said Clovis Unified was among those driven more by the new instructional and testing requirements.

"We were doing what we could with the funding we had to push the technology and bring our systems and network up to date," he said. "Now, the window is very tight to do that in."

The district's latest push to put newer computers in every classroom "creates more demand on the wireless capacity and the infrastructure," Resciniti added. "We had to rethink how we deliver the connectivity."

The State Educational Technology Directors Association, a national organization, recommends a minimum connection of 100 Mbps for each school site. "When you translate that to larger schools, that's not much for a 400-student campus," Sanders said. "It will support testing, but it wouldn't support a lot of interactive work with online resources."

Madden said that since the 2012-13 report from the state High Speed Network, Fresno Unified now has its elementary schools at 500 Mbps and its middle and high schools at 1 Gbps. The district office, through which all of the schools connect to the Internet, has a pipeline with a capacity of 10 Gbps.

"Right now, our peak use for the whole district is 1.5 to 1.7 gigabytes at the very top," Madden said. "Even with students testing concurrently, it's still not that much. We have the bandwidth. We exceed the requirements substantially."

Districts that lag face a severe disadvantage in testing, Sanders said. "If a school only has a 1.5 Mbps connection, and they need about 20 kilobytes per second per kid for testing, it means they can't test many kids at one time," she said.

Kimbley, the Tulare County technology specialist, said the same is true for small districts that aren't yet up to speed.

"The basic infrastructure network has to be more robust, and it's getting better," he said. "That is being improved in the number of underserved districts that are getting faster Internet. It's a matter of bringing that out to the county areas (and) getting that last mile of network out to schools that don't have it."

"Once a district's network is more robust," Kimbley added, "they have more interest in looking at options for better using the devices they already have on hand."

RELATED: Clovis techie teacher uses the tweet method

RELATED: Online math is fun and games for Central Unified students

RELATED: Robots, 3-D design, video excite students at Sequoia Middle