I. Introduction

Photo: Flickr: Ken Lund

Measuring Broadband in Alexandria Schools

In the majority of America’s schools, broadband connects students to learning opportunities that were previously unreachable. New digital tools are not only providing more responsive assessments, but these tools are also helping educators personalize content and instruction for their students. Students in connected classrooms are able to access information previously locked away in library, museum, and city hall archives; create multimedia content using new digital tools; and learn from and collaborate with experts and peers across the country and around the world. With intentional adoption and use, new technologies can help to ensure that all students are able to receive the preparation they need to succeed in their future civic and economic lives.

Unfortunately, as school districts look to increase their online services for teachers and students, they are often confronted with limited federal and state financial support, aging broadband infrastructure that cannot support higher speeds, and insufficient guidance on planning for future use. Further, district leaders are often left on their own to navigate how best to leverage broadband investments to support teaching and learning. They need to evaluate and choose between an abundance of devices and tools that connect new technologies with academic content, consider how best to include teacher and student input, and respond to challenges that arise while implementing these new technologies in the classroom.

Our public schools will not be able to provide all students with equitable access to learning if state and national education leaders do not help districts address these challenges.

The Risk of Building a 'Bridge to Nowhere'

Over the past few years, the commonwealth has begun to recognize and address the challenges that stand in the way of divisions fully leveraging broadband investments for online learning. Bobby Keener, chief technology innovations officer for the Virginia Department of Education, is working with leaders across the state to articulate what online learning looks like. “It’s not just about putting the infrastructure in place,” Keener said in an interview with New America, “but it’s also giving divisions examples of how they can use it.”

As the use of technology to supplement instruction in PreK-12 education has become more common, the need for network performance data at the classroom level has intensified. The internet is used for instruction in increasingly diverse ways, for everything from assessment and student performance tracking, to one-to-one initiatives that support flipped classrooms and blended learning instruction. As teachers come to depend upon these new technologies for daily instruction, inadequate service can significantly disrupt teaching and learning.

“We don’t want to build a bridge to nowhere,” Keener said, reflecting on Virginia’s two decades of investment in infrastructure for its public schools. It is up to Virginia, he said, to provide rich examples of how the internet can be a bridge to learning for students.


The E-rate program, which was authorized with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, subsidizes some of the cost of telecommunications and information services for schools and libraries. In 2014, the FCC increased funding to $3.9 billion annually to schools and libraries to meet their goal of high-speed connectivity, along with another $2 billion in multi-year funding to support Wi-Fi upgrades. To ensure these connectivity goals are met, school districts—as well as other public institutions—need the data and methods of analysis to understand how their networks perform, and where their capacity may need to grow, in order to support the needs of students and instructional staff.

New America’s Education Policy program and Open Technology Institute have long advocated that the FCC “improve data collection and measurement tools so that E-rate participants, researchers and policymakers can better understand and analyze the program”. The challenge of building, maintaining, and upgrading schools’ broadband networks and their connection to the internet is no small task. IT managers and administrators often have the dual role of architecting and implementing technology solutions as well as assessing, planning, and budgeting for the future. Balancing day-to-day infrastructure and instructional technology support with data gathering and assessment is challenging, even for well-staffed districts. Data about network performance, however, is critical to the annual funding requests districts make to the E-rate program.