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Online classes, tests drive need for increased capability

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For years, schools have been trying to add computers or iPads for online classes, and they’ve been debating whether to let students use their smartphones or other devices to get online during the school day.

Behind the scenes, school officials also have been working to ensure buildings have enough Internet capability to connect all the gadgets at speeds that users have come to expect. That Internet capability is called bandwidth. The greater the bandwidth, the more students and teachers can get online to watch videos or take tests without connection troubles or slow-downs.

Clark-Pleasant uses about half of the bandwidth it pays for. The rest can be used in case an unusually large number of students or teachers try to log online simultaneously, technology director Jim White said.

The bandwidth Clark-Pleasant receives from the three Internet providers should be enough for at least a year. But then it and other local school districts will need more to keep up with a growing number of online lessons as well as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College Careers exam, which all Indiana students in grades 3 through 11 will take in 2015.

“It’s just the way it’s trending over the years. What we have is not going to be enough, and we always have to keep ramping it up,” White said.

Once a school district is using at least 80 percent of its bandwidth on a regular basis, it needs to think about purchasing more. Otherwise, by the time the school district is using all of its bandwidth, it likely won’t be able to upgrade without having its Internet service slowed or disrupted, White and Franklin technology director Matt Sprout said.

Franklin uses more than 60 percent of its bandwidth, and Sprout said he is considering increasing what the school district has. And Center Grove’s goal is to have five times as much bandwidth as it had five years ago, technology director Julie Bohnenkamp said.

Paying for the upgrades could mean technology directors have to re-prioritize how to spend money, especially at Clark-Pleasant and Franklin, where the money that pays for technology upgrades is limited because of property tax caps.

“If the economy gets warm and things pick up, it won’t be an issue. But if things trickle along (there will) have to be some choices made,” White said.

That could mean rethinking whether to pay for licenses for as many online programs or for courses on Internet safety for students, White said. But districts will have to make bandwidth a priority, especially as the exam approaches, Sprout said.

Indiana is one of 24 states that will start using PARCC, the online exam that will replace ISTEP. The exam still is being written, but the plan calls for students to be assessed based on their answers to in-depth essay questions.

Indiana schools can chose to take a practice exam in 2014, and everyone will be required to take the test in 2015.

The technology directors from Center Grove, Clark-Pleasant and Franklin all said their schools could administer PARCC now if they had to. While none of the school districts have a computer for every student to use at once, they do have enough computer labs and laptops so they would be able to schedule all students for the exam within a testing window.

But giving a standardized test to students in nine grades likely would mean a disruption in Internet service.

If Center Grove is able to upgrade its bandwidth, that will help ensure Internet access doesn’t stop or slow down while classes are testing or conducting online lessons simultaneously, Bohnenkamp said.

If Clark-Pleasant doesn’t increase its bandwidth by the time the exam is given, White will need to review how classes are using the Internet and ask that no one connect for anything that wasn’t essential. While the online-based alternative academy could go on, teachers who regularly use videos from YouTube or CNN.com for their lessons would need to find other materials.

“We’d have to narrow it down, just to ensure quality of service,” White said.

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