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K-16 Education Data Networks

Current State of Application

Historically, Southern Virginia school divisions have had to contend with a variety of network-related issues inherent to rural areas where a thinly-dispersed population and large geographic area cause inefficiencies in scale, cost, and quality of technological advances. Among these issues are unreliable internet service, limited broadband access, slow connections, and very high costs. These problems are the result of bandwidth-starved connections that are forced to rely on the shared public internet as their only gateway to information and educational resources. Because of these limiting factors, current education networks were established to merely allow internet users to “browse the web” (exchanging small amounts of data), and they are not capable of supporting modern (bandwidth intensive) applications and future distance learning models necessary for schools and businesses to compete in the global economy.  With current education networks, network engineers have had to deal with choppy, scrambled images and frustrating time delays as the material is delivered. Too often, the result is unsatisfied users with reduced motivation to adopt innovative new teaching techniques.

Emerging Applications

Multipoint virtual classrooms within schools use high-definition video, audio, and data to support real-time collaboration. Such classrooms can be combined with applications to control, monitor, and access student computers on distant sites that support student generated input. These “electronic classrooms” will dramatically improve student/staff interaction, participation, and development across school divisions and higher education partners.
With the increased availability of affordable large, regional data storage technology, video on demand libraries and live “TV-type” broadcasts will become incorporated into teaching and administration for students and staff. For example, teachers are much more likely to provide a video in the classroom that is delivered as a stream of network data packets than to use DVDs or videotapes.
With increases in data storage combined with increased broadband access to homes, teachers will be able to communicate and expand the learning model beyond the traditional school day or classroom walls with “portal-type” web access, where content is displayed based on authentication.  Through tools like these, teachers could test students in class, share the scored tests with parents immediately, and recommend extra learning, all in a secure asynchronous environment that can be accessed whenever it is convenient for families.

Minimum Technology Requirements

The future of education and economic development in Virginia hinges tremendously on the ability to exchange large amounts of data instantaneously, securely, and dependably from centrally-located data sources.  In these examples the technology issue is not the amount of bandwidth as much as the network design and the school IT administrators’ ability to shape and control the bandwidth.
The old model of a single T-1 connection to the public internet [or T1 local loops to the division office] through the local telephone company is not only too restrictive, it is also too expensive. A technology infrastructure model to interconnect individual schools using the public internet [T-1 lines] as their only access route is inadequate.  Today, and more so in the future, as more and more data is exchanged electronically within and among schools, their division offices, school divisions, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), and Higher Education Partners, schools require a model that provides individualized access to the school intranet (school division), the area education extranet (other school divisions and their higher education partners), and a school division’s public internet access.  This new model will be unified, unlimited, and dependable at a lower cost.

Business Aspects

In Southern Virginia—a large rural geographic area with a thinly-dispersed population— education has been limited by the affordable choices for network design attributable to inefficiencies in scale, cost, and quality of technological choices.  With the advent of the MBC network, a regional transport only carrier where rates are not based on mileage, education IT administrators are coming together to pool resources to create a unified, unlimited, and dependable network model at a lower cost.  This new model allows partnerships that give private internet service providers the opportunity to leverage the new network’s physical infrastructure to provide reliable, high-speed, cost-effective broadband service to homes and businesses in the region. This will encourage and enhance entrepreneurship and small business development while increasing access to education for all.

Obstacles or Barriers to Further Deployment

The largest obstacle to the success of virtual learning networks is the massive coordination of the state agencies and school districts that need to come together to see the vision and coordinate their development and installation