How Schools’ Poor Infrastructure Can Blunt EdTech Advances

Sure, there is great cloud-based education software available, but many schools lack either the hardware or the bandwidth to make them work. Hope comes in the form of some clever–and cheap–hardware innovations from around the world.

How Schools’ Poor Infrastructure Can Blunt EdTech Advances
Try accessing the newest edtech on the kind of hardware most schools are still holding on to. Flickr user Zach_Beauvais

Technology is often more of a spectator sport than anything else. In spite of elegant software like iOS5 and Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich, we are still at the mercy of the nearest cell-phone tower for a simple text message or phone call, or an open Wi-Fi signal to enjoy the latest streaming music app. Then the battery dies. Score Team Software 1, Team Hardware 0. Next up pops Intel’s new matchbox-sized teraflop processor (50 cores in contrast with the four in today’s latest computers) for which software programs haven’t even been conceived. Team Software 1, Team Hardware 2.


Corporate America has grown accustomed to these zigzags, but they can be crippling in schools where budgets are stick-thin. The past year has seen many software edtech startups bloom, with data-crunching, cloud-centric software apps. (Take a peek at EdSurge’s list of 2011 edtech debutants.) Many of these spiffy products, however, demand the latest touch tablets or smartphones or computers, or (just as bad) need a lot of bandwidth.

That makes them useless for schools stuck with mini-tower relics that lack processing power or with limited high-speed broadband. According to the Educational Technology in Public School Districts: Fall 2008 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 37% of schools connected to the Internet through a district network enjoyed fiber optic connections (often necessary to connect a large number of students to web apps which require high bandwidth). So while many educators were excited to see YouTube announce a service explicitly designed for schools, few K-12 schools have the bandwidth muscle to turn on KhanAcademy in every class.

Budget-wrangling at local, state, and federal levels complicates the problem. Earlier this year, the NYC Department of Education announced plans for a half-billion dollar upgrade to its IT infrastructure–only two years after reporting that every school had wireless Internet access. While necessary for providing access to the latest edtech tools, and educating students in digital literacy, these type of budget outlays are hard for voters and taxpayers to digest in tough economic times.

But particularly in the second half of 2011, Team Hardware has been on the offensive with a couple of big first downs. The tablet market has matured overnight, bringing with it a broader range in costs. Devices now run from $99 to $799. Alternative Wi-Fi providers, such as Meraki, offer cloud-computing capabilities at a fraction of traditional infrastructure costs.

There are also some intriguing hardware solutions that offer power at bargain basement prices. (One intriguing footnote: All the following technologies were developed outside the U.S.).

In India, the Android-based Aakash Tablet weighed in under $65 retail (although finding one in the U.S. may be tricky right now). Then there is the $25 Raspberry Pi, from the U.K. The Raspberry Pi is a simple Linux machine and ARM processor, intended to help students learn computer programming.  


And another sweet option is FXI Technology’s recently announced Cotton Candy, a sub-$200 USB stick complete with Android software, an HDMI port, microSD slot, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, which together can turn any monitor or TV into an Android device. FXI is based in Norway.  

Such hardware innovations don’t solve every school’s problem–not by a long shot. But they do start to create momentum–and a hope that administrators won’t have to punt on the issue, or worse, put future school leaders on the defensive. Here a few simple rules to follow to get schools up to snuff on the technological front:

Technology game plan for schools

  • Focus on learning capabilities just as much technological capabilities. Technology improves much more quickly than educational institutions can afford to keep up. Find what helps the student and what will continue to help the student, even after the next “latest and greatest” is released.
  • Consider maintenance costs and ease of replacement. Textbooks take a beating and keep on breathing. Tablets don’t. Negotiate repair and support costs upfront.
  • Portability matters. The proverbial computer lab should stay in the 20th century.  Any computing power that schools fail to place in the hands of today’s digital native will probably be replaced in form and content by the gadget in their pocket.
  • Device performance depends on infrastructure robustness. A five-year old computer on a new network is more desirable than a new computer on a five-year-old network. Consider that the massive gains in cellular and Wi-Fi infrastructure over the past few years are largely driven by more and more consumers working and playing in the cloud. Don’t be late to the party, the kids certainly are not.

By Leonard Medlock, EdSurge