The Network for Learning (N4L) will start offering “free” ultrafast broadband (UFB) before the end of this year. The Ministry of Education is funding the package that includes access to the managed network, uncapped data, online content filtering and network security services. The move will revolutionise teaching in many schools.

For most schools UFB will be around 100 times faster than what they have experienced with broadband. A good analogy is that it will be the difference between driving a vintage car on a gravel road and a Lexus on a four-lane highway.

Carolyn Stuart, Education Sector Lead at N4L, says it’s vital that the Internet works if teachers are being asked to put aside old teaching methods and teach in a new way. “If they have a go and the technology lets them down it will be hard to (get started) again,” she says. “It needs to be there all the time and to perform all the time. If it doesn’t it just gets in the way.”

Provided for

N4L announced a deal with Telecom New Zealand in August and will begin rolling out connections to schools before the end of this year. Approximately 1,400 of New Zealand’s 2,500 state and state integrated schools have signed up for N4L so far. The majority of schools will be connected between 2014 and 2016.

Once connected much of the cost and burden of providing Internet access will be taken away from schools, which will be a huge relief for the majority.

The second prong of N4L’s offering is a “portal” – which will be a central hub for digital learning. The portal is still in design and details are sketchy. It’s expected, however, that services such as Mathletics, Reading Eggspress and other learning and teaching tools will be rated by portal users, and these ratings will be reflected in search results, enabling teachers to find tried and tested resources.

Unrestricted

Unlike some experiments overseas that have all but failed, the portal will not restrict what content or websites schools can access on the Internet.

Currently many schools have fibre laid past their gates but for various reasons aren’t using it or getting the full benefit of it. Some simply can’t afford to light the fibre of their UFB connection. Others don’t see it as a priority over and above other expenses and will wait for a free connection.

Those that are using UFB quite simply can’t imagine being without the opportunities that it brings. Liz Stevenson, project leader blended eLearning Te Toi Tupu at CORE Education, cites an example of an event she ran in Gisborne. Students from a school in Sydney were studying the movie Whale Rider and organised a videoconference with Maori students from Whangara where the movie was shot.

“This is students not just learning about something in order to recount the information, in order to satisfy an assessment task, but students engaged in discussion, dialogue and real action” the inquiry process at its best,” says Stevenson. “Now technologies give us access to anything and anyone who can help us learn.”

I want it now

Schools, as Paul Brislen, chief executive of the Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand points out, are particularly intensive users of bandwidth. Those that allow students to bring their own devices to school (BYOD) may have hundreds of individual browsers connected to the network, using high definition content.

Ahead of N4L, some schools have signed up for short-term UFB packages from Telecom and others such as Orcon, CallPlus, and Vodafone. One such school is Taupaki School. The decile 10, rural school hooked up to UFB in September 2012 and hasn’t looked back. “We have not known ourselves since,” says principal Stephen Lethbridge. “The other day it only took 25 minutes to download the (6.5gb) Apple operating system. We would have been here all day in the past.”

Prior to UFB, Taupaki’s 200-plus students and teachers fought to upload or download video and audio, which they use extensively in class. “Teachers had to take stuff to their home broadband to upload,” says Lethbridge.

Taupaki’s blended-learning approach uses the learning management system Knowledge NET to collaborate with students and parents, and encourages Year 4 and above students to bring in their own browsers (such as iPads and other tablets) to school.

3D printers

Although Taupaki School used KnowledgeNET before it got UFB, the web-based learning management service has become much quicker and easier to use. UFB also makes the streaming of eTV (Education Television and Video) programmes into classrooms easy.

The school even owns and uses three 3D printers, which allows them to design and build products.

[g1_fluid_wrapper width=”1200″ height=”675″]

[/g1_fluid_wrapper]

Lethbridge, who believes the killer app for eLearning is a “thinking teacher” who adapts to change, says his school spent between $60,000 and $70,000 around four years ago on infrastructure.

Getting SNUPed

Not all schools feel confident or resourced enough to set up their own ultrafast broadband networks as Taupaki has. And not all principals are IT-savvy.

Managing procurement and support can be a nightmare for principals. However, thanks to the School Network Upgrade Project (SNUP), which gives subsidised upgrades of data and electrical cabling, many schools are seeing significant improvements in their hardware and systems integration. The schools’ systems are audited and then upgraded, in preparation for UFB.

All schools can benefit from being “SNUPed”, says Lethbridge, even those like his that have invested in technology. When his own school was SNUPed, “redundancy” was built into the system. This means if one part of the school’s network goes down, there are multiple paths to the server meaning the remainder of the network can continue to function. “If anything goes wrong we have ways to move traffic around the school.”

Waiting for N4L may have educational disadvantages, but it has certain cost advantages. Taupaki School, for example, spends around $700 a month currently on Internet provision (including subscriptions to applications and services). Lethbridge estimates that will drop to around $250 if the school connects through N4L.

Faster

Schools that are already on UFB won’t see a huge change in their day-to-day existence other than a drop in their monthly ICT costs when they move to N4L. Some, however, will find that UFB from N4L is faster than they currently receive. That’s because the contract between N4L and Telecom requires a higher level of service than is offered currently by some telcos to schools.

There are a good number of schools using UFB [that] say their Internet does not go much faster, if at all, than when they were on [broadband], and these schools suffer from bottlenecks when too many people use the Internet at the same time, which impacts on downloads speeds,” says John Hanna, Chief Executive at N4L.

Many schools don’t even have fibre to the gate yet to connect to. Of the 176 schools in Hamilton, Cambridge, Te Awamutu, Tokoroa, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Wanganui and Hawera, for example, Ultrafast Fibre has built past 110 schools. The majority will be completed by the end of 2014. Of the schools that have been built past, about 50 percent have had the cable connected from the gate to the school. Not all of those are paying for a UFB plan with a retail service provider, however, and are waiting for the free service.

Some schools can’t get a connection when they want it. Mangaroa School, for example, had fibre laid to within 1km of the school gate in June last year. The school made the decision to move to the MUSAC online school management system and to go BYOD with its two senior classes. It signed up with a provider, which then took more than four months to connect the school, says Andrew de Wit, deputy principal, Mangaroa School.

De Wit is looking forward to N4L with the promise of “extras” but says he feels jaded by the time it will take for his school to get the free connection.

Next steps

In the meantime, schools and teachers need to up-skill themselves. There are a number of ways to do that says Stuart at N4L. The best is for teachers to start using the technologies themselves and to visit other schools that are further down the track with blended eLearning.

Tawa Intermediate School is an example of a technologically advanced school, which offers its expertise to others in the area. “The staff have a high level of expertise and willingly collaborate,” says principal Brendon Henderson.

Teachers can attend CORE Education’s ULearn and e-learning focussed EduCampNZ, which are based on the idea that participants share ideas and learn from each other.

There are networks in some parts of the country where teachers and principals can share expertise. More than 45 Waikato schools have joined the Hamilton Education Open Network (HEDON), which is sponsored by Ultrafast Fibre, and hundreds of teachers throughout the wider region are supported through its work.

“HEDON’s objective is to teach Waikato-area teachers about how to use the latest technologies in the classroom to help students get the best learning outcomes,” says a trustee of HEDON, principal Royce Helm from Southwell School. “We do this through our annual conference, regular information-sharing workshops and by getting facilitators out to schools to help with implementation.”