II. The Project: Measuring Broadband in Schools

The Pilot

To achieve greater perspective on how increasing demand for broadband infrastructure is playing out in schools, in 2015 New America partnered with Virginia’s Alexandria City Public Schools to analyze its network performance, given the technology environment of the division, the connectivity in classrooms, and the instructional use of devices and online resources. As a part of this research, team members interviewed local technology leaders, conducted a division-wide teacher survey, and collected broadband speed data at the classroom level.

This partnership exposed how Virginia’s adoption of online testing influenced the adoption and use of new technologies in the classroom. The commonwealth’s experience foreshadows what awaits states across the country that are just now connecting schools to sufficient broadband service to support online testing. The lessons learned over the past two decades in Virginia should serve as an important roadmap for other states.

About Alexandria City Public Schools

Partner Selection and Methodology

In selecting a school district to partner with for this pilot study, the New America research team considered a variety of factors, including the size of the school, the capacity of technology staff, the physical architectures of the schools, and district location. Based on these criteria, New America selected Virginia's Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS). Virginia has historically been an early adopter in the move to online testing, and ACPS has been a leader in integrating technology and instruction.

Alexandria district leadership was particularly interested in participating in this pilot study to explore new ways to assess the capacity of their network. Prior to starting the pilot study, New America researchers obtained an IRB exemption for this research from a third party, independent IRB firm, in response to research requirements from the district’s Office of Accountability.

ACPS’ collaboration on this project, validation of the pilot design, and assistance throughout the project was critical to the study’s success.

New America researchers worked with ACPS staff to identify three school locations within the district to host the measurements: one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. Within each school, three locations were selected to have the network speed and health measured periodically over the course of two months. At each of these locations a small computer running the Network Diagnostic Tool (NDT) measurement test was connected to the network and configured to run scheduled tests automatically. New America researchers coordinated with ACPS IT staff to ensure the devices functioned properly and were accessible remotely for monitoring progress, and made regular visits to the schools to diagnose issues that arose during the course of data collection.

During the testing period, the devices functioned just as any computer in use in the schools. NDT tests were scheduled to occur randomly throughout a 24 hour period, to distribute data collection throughout the day. The NDT test uses synthetic data to collect information about the connection quality, and specifically does not collect information about internet traffic, such as emails, web searches, videos viewed, or any personally identifiable information.

To understand how these challenges affect what teachers do in the classroom, New America also conducted a survey of educators in all of Alexandria’s schools in 2016 . The teacher survey data from Alexandria illustrates the enormous changes public schools have undergone in a relatively short amount of time. The data also underscore the importance of robust broadband connectivity in schools, and the negative impact under-provisioning can have on student learning.