St. Vrain Valley School District finally taking a ride on high speed internet thanks to new broadband services in Longmont.

Whether your 8th grader fires up their iPad to research anatomy or your spouse orders a pizza online, soon, both can cruise the information super highway at lightning speed.

That’s because of the $40.3 million capital bond broadband project that currently delivers high speed internet access to some local businesses in Longmont and a limited amount of residents.  

According to Longmont Power and Communication official Susan Wisecup, about 1000 more residents will have the service when phase 1A  of the project rolls out on November 3.  All residents will have access when the final phase concludes in 2017, she added.

St. Vrain Valley School District is one of the latest customers to receive faster internet speeds as a result of these new services provided by the city. According to district officials, bandwidth expansion means schools within city limits now receive 10 gigabytes per second, a far cry from the molasses speeds they were used to—previously clocked at just one gigabyte per second.  

And with about 24,000 teachers, students and administrators taxing the network with all that traffic in the new school year, users will surely notice a faster ride once everyone’s settled back into the classroom. 

But to fully understand what all this means for students, staff and families, you must step into today’s classroom to get a true feel for the endless possibilities that high speed internet and an expanded broadband system brings. Many say it truly transforms the teaching and learning experience.  

The district’s Chief Information Officer, Joe Mc Breen, says the changes are exciting because now schools are equipped to do things that were once impossible—like talking to students in virtual classrooms halfway across the globe or conducting teacher interviews via Skype.  

McBreen says the new broadband implementation went live on July 1 at the school district and it means internet speeds are 10 times faster. And now that the new school year is in full swing, students and teachers are in for real treat as they launch internet browsers, check email, or work with collaboration tools like Google docs.  

For starters, teachers and students can get started on lesson plans right away—and without the usual test of patience when waiting for highly graphic web pages to load at glacial speed or anticipating a predictable timed out video session.

“By increasing bandwidth ten-fold, what that does is it changes the way our teachers and students access all the communication, collaboration and creativity tools that the internet offers—and without delay.”

Under the district’s Learning Technology Plan, which is a four year plan in its first year of implementation, McBreen says schools can more easily “expand” on what they teach students and ultimately take learning to “the next level.”  

“We’re moving to a one-to-one learning environment with one computing device for every one child in 6th-12th grade, and we’re starting with middle-schoolers this year. All middle-schoolers in St. Vrain will have an iPad mini.”

“So that’s right around 6000 cool new devices,” says Michelle Bourgeois, project manager with the District Technology Services Department. 

Having adequate bandwidth is key to making this mission successful.  Without it, technology would simply leave schools in the dust as the rest of the world charges on. And depending on which tools you use in the classroom, that choice is bound by a currency measured in bandwidth.  

“One of the things that’s driving the demand for bandwidth is people using the internet and its video based capability,” said McBreen.

Bourgeois says streaming video opens a whole new world of learning in the classroom— but it’s dead in the water without the right infrastructure in place that makes it work. 

“Videos eat up more bandwidth—so now they will be able to have video conferencing where they interact in live mode with scientists in other parts of the world,” she says.  

And to give a little perspective growing device usage, Bourgeois said, “We will be quadrupling how many devices our network uses”. 

She said the typical middle school may have used about 150 devices in the past, but that number has soared to around 1000 devices—which includes mobile devices, computers and tablets.

Despite the district’s efforts to provide students with a bright technological future, there still lies a problem when families cannot catch up with all the technology or provide the basics to their students. 

To help bridge the gap in the formidable technology divide, a concept referring to people who lack internet access or computers, the district chose iPads for students because of a distinct feature—it allows students to bookmark or save webpages and later access them offline if internet is unavailable. 

The City of Longmont is chipping in as well by offering free internet access for qualifying low income families with school-aged children.  

Tracy DeFrancesco oversees the program for the city and she says it helps about 260 families each year.  Families who use the program say it makes a noticeable difference in their child’s academic performance, says DeFrancesco. 

Based on annual survey results, DeFrancesco says, “80% families say their children are doing better [in school.]”

While anyone can use the library for free internet access to download homework, it’s not always convenient, says DeFrancesco. Plus, the notorious one hour rule that limits usage makes it even more difficult when students need to go this route. 

“Families said going to the library [for internet] was hard because of transportation issues,” DeFrancesco says. 

Another way families gain access to technology has something to do with elected official Jared Polis and his Community Computer Connection program. Families in need receive free refurbished computers. 

Moving forward, big plans are in store for the schools in St. Vrain Valley. In fact, eventually, we may not recognize what classrooms once looked like. Chalkboards become mere symbols of a vintage era in education that’s now replaced by new electronic devices, virtual classrooms and avatars.  

“Just recently, Google has opened up Google Plus for education domains like ours, so we’re going to be moving towards that [eventually],” says McBreen. 

– By Elise Oberliesen


*Note: Joe McBreen provided the 24,000 figure.