Slow or unreliable internet and aging student devices in schools is undermining the achievement of DoE’s vision.
Schools are increasing the number of student devices in use, moving towards wireless internet usage and online student testing. All of those changes rely on, and affect internet speed and bandwidth capacity. Reliability and performance issues can result in students getting distracted, falling behind or having limited access to the classroom resources they need. Further, schools informed us that slow and unreliable internet is a reason some teachers limit the use of ICT in classrooms as it contributes to behaviour management problems amongst students.
DoE collects annual Computer Census data from each school. The census data includes information from schools on all school owned devices in use by students and administration staff, including desktop computers, laptops and tablets. The Department uses the data to establish and manage central ICT infrastructure and service agreements. However, DoE do not publish the data.
Schools need access to fast and reliable internet
Slow or unreliable internet can restrict a teacher delivering a lesson, students completing online testing and can even stifle innovation in the classroom.
Seven of the 12 schools we visited said they experienced issues with poor internet speed, lack of bandwidth or internet connection dropouts. Our survey results supported this with 74% of respondents identifying internet speed as a key issue in their use of ICT (Figure 8).
Schools are being encouraged by DoE to increase the use of online services, consider BYOD, and to purchase additional devices. However, schools already experiencing issues with internet speed and bandwidth will likely find that using these additions will increase the strain.
We observed an upward trend in internet use. Each school receives a data download allocation paid for by DoE. In 2014-15, 543 schools exceeded their current download allocations by more than 10%. By March 2016, this had increased to 588 schools.
DoE is increasing bandwidth at 192 schools across the state and rolling out hardware to allow for more efficient bandwidth usage at 791 schools. Schools are likely to increase their internet usage as connection speed and reliability improve.
DoE also expects to complete the roll out of the SOE v4.5 by September 2016. Five of the 12 schools we visited were already operating on v4.5 of the SOE and four had experienced improvements in internet connectivity. The SOE should improve schools connectivity by introducing centrally controlled wireless connection points, update network hardware and give schools the ability to prevent users from bypassing local internet controls.
The average age of school owned devices in secondary schools is increasing and causing difficulties
The overall number and average age of devices in secondary schools is increasing. Older devices are likely to be slow to turn on, to process information and run programs. For portable devices, battery life will likely be very short. Older devices are also more likely to experience hardware faults and because of their age are unlikely to be under warranty. This creates additional workload for onsite ICT support staff or contractors.
During our site visits, teachers said they at times abandoned the use of devices in their classroom because the devices were slow to operate and contributed to behaviour management problems amongst students.
Based on school responses to the annual DoE Computer Census from 2012 to 2015, we observed two different trends in the proportion of aged devices owned by schools:
- secondary school ratio of aged devices has increased significantly and is now almost one-third.
- primary schools show a significant increase in the number of new devices, and the proportion of aged devices has declined (Figure 11).
We also plotted the trend in student to device ratio to better understand the impact of aging devices on the availability of devices for each student (Figure 12).
The ratio in primary schools has shown an improvement in line with additional funding. However, in secondary schools the ratio is deteriorating slowly, and the increase in aging devices exacerbates the decline. This means students may not have reliable devices for use in their studies.
Secondary schools have markedly decreased the number of devices purchased since 2012. The decrease in new purchases may be reflective of more secondary schools moving to BYOD programs, as well as the end of the NSSCF federal funding. The increase in devices over 4 years old is in line with the 1:1 devices purchased through the NSSCF program reaching their end of life. To extend the life of these older devices, some schools retain broken devices for spare parts (Figure 13).
In December 2015, DoE announced the Primary School Device Program to provide more access to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and support schools to prepare for NAPLAN online. The program provided dollar for dollar funding for eligible schools to increase, replenish, and better manage devices.
This sort of one-off funding injection helps schools address immediate issues, but has the potential to create challenges for schools to support and replace these devices into the future. Secondary schools are currently experiencing this issue with devices purchased through the NSSCF.
The NSSCF set a goal of a 1:1 device to student ratio by 2012 for all students’ years 9 to 12. In the 2012 Education and Health Standing Committee’s report, The role of ICT in Western Australian Education: Living and Working in a Digital World, DoE indicated that schools had achieved these ratios. However, the report also flagged concerns raised by all Australian jurisdictions about maintaining these ratios if the NSSCF were to end.
The NSSCF did end in 2012 and DoE returned to its minimum device to student ratios of 1:5 for secondary students and 1:10 for primary. A 1:5 and 1:10 device to student ratio would be higher than ratios achieved in 2005 when DoE began collecting computer census data. These ratios are not in line with the DoE vision for learning environments enriched by ICT.
A review of school Computer Census data from 2012 to 2015 shows that most primary and secondary schools met the ratios (Table 2). The figures also show an increase in the number of devices per primary student and a decrease for secondary students since 2012.
However, if we excluded student devices over 4 years old we found that some schools were not meeting the 1:5 and 1:10 goals. In 2015, 25 primary schools exceeded the 1:10 ratio and 7 secondary schools exceeded 1:5 (Table 3).