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Schools always need an upgrade

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For the rest of the school year, YouTube videos must be viewed sparingly at Greenwood schools.

School officials don’t have a problem with students streaming educational videos in class, in fact many of them encourage it. That’s why teachers at the middle and high schools have been experimenting with tablet and laptop devices for the last two years, looking for the best way to include videos, online research and other Internet-based lessons as part of their regular classes.

But Greenwood is using all of its Internet capability, or bandwidth, and has none to spare. That means Web pages are slow to load, and students can be regularly knocked offline when they’re in the middle of completing an assignment, technology director Rebecca Rinehart said.

Students will have an easier time streaming videos and loading Web pages next school year, after the school district changes Internet providers and increases its bandwidth over the summer. Part of the contract with the new Internet provider will give the school district the option to increase its Internet usage whenever it needs to, said Rinehart.

Greenwood and other local school districts will have to be able to increase their Internet capabilities over the next few years. Nearly all of the county’s school districts have either provided tablets or laptops for students to use in class or are allowing more students to bring their own. That means each day, hundreds of students in local schools are watching lectures, working on presentations or taking quizzes online, and using more bandwidth

If schools want students to retain what they’ve learned while using the devices, instead of getting frustrated and switching them off, then officials need to ensure students can operate them without being routinely kicked offline, technology directors said.

“You can never have a garage too big or too much bandwidth. You’re always going to fill it up,” Clark-Pleasant technology director Jim White said.

The cost of keeping up with different kinds of technology and seeing how well it works in class includes more than wireless Internet, iPads and laptops. To keep those devices working properly, school districts also have to update their firewalls, antivirus software and other components that enable students to use the Internet. When a device needs to be updated or fixed, someone needs to make the repair.

School officials want to be sure students aren’t using any devices at school to access inappropriate websites or anything that would distract them or their classmates during class. But upgrading firewalls and antivirus programs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and be too much for some school districts, including Clark-Pleasant, which has less money for technology because of property tax caps.

School districts typically want to upgrade their bandwidth once they’re using 60 percent of what they have. That way they can be sure all of their current students can use the Internet in class, and they’re also prepared if more students are given or start bringing their own devices to school, White and Franklin technology director Matt Sprout said. Last school year, Clark-Pleasant was using about 80 percent of its bandwidth but renegotiated with a provider and is using about 30 percent now.

But soon the firewall, virus protection and other components won’t be able to keep up with the increased usage, White said. To be able to provide uninterrupted Internet, protection programs have to be working fast enough. Clark-Pleasant can keep up with usage for about a year, and then they’ll need to be upgraded, White said. Those upgrades could cost $100,000 to $200,000, and right now White doesn’t know where that money will come from.

Schools that have provided devices for all of their students to use also will need figure out how to maintain and eventually replace those devices over the next few years.

Franklin school officials received $500,000 from the Franklin Redevelopment Commission to buy new Google Chromebooks for all Franklin Community High School students. The laptops should last for at least two to three years, and parents won’t have to pay a fee for the devices next school year. School officials are still figuring out whether the new laptops will affect other fees for students, Sprout said.

At Center Grove and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools, which bought iPads for all of their high school students this school year, technology fees for students rose between $75 and $125. But whether families paid more is hard to know because textbook and technology fees vary for high school students depending on their classes.

Franklin also has less money to spend on technology because of property tax caps, and school officials have had to cut about $3.5 million in spending over the next decade. But upgrading the schools’ Internet is essential, so Sprout will work with officials to ensure there’s money budgeted to pay for equipment and software upgrades, he said.

Next school year, Sprout expects more teachers and students will be using the Chromebooks and the Internet every day to research projects, create presentations and watch lectures online. And he plans to increase Franklin’s bandwidth this summer to ensure the high school’s about 1,700 students can use the new devices online at the same time.

“I really like where we’re at right now, but with the addition of another 2,000 devices, our bandwidth needs are going to go up,” Sprout said.

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