Tech upgrade will bring Urbana schools up to speed

Tech upgrade will bring Urbana schools up to speed

URBANA – Erin Lodes dreams of a day when her music students can use class time to watch videos.

Not to play, but to check out famous musicians demonstrating their craft on YouTube, or to all simultaneously use a program in which they click to match musical notes with their sounds.

Or she imagines her students' excitement if they could make a podcast for an assignment, "instead of writing a paper where they can't use sound examples," said Lodes, band director at Urbana Middle School.

But until this week, many of those education tools were the stuff of dreams, limited by a slow network capacity.

"Before, if even two people in this building were streaming video," she said, "it really shuts us down."

By Tuesday, her dreams will be closer to reality.

Servers serving more

On Friday, while parents and teachers met in conferences, movers and consultants worked on getting Urbana school district's network servers – which store and connect the school district's data – moved from the district's main office on Race Street and from Leal Elementary School to Urbana Middle School, a central point in the district and a location from which a thousand students and teachers use the Web.

The moving day is only the start of a wave of Internet upgrades in Urbana, which includes laying and connecting shared fiber optic cables around public buildings in the city.

"As we've added servers and added components to our technology, it's stressed out our bandwidth and our network," said Don Owen, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

As a result, "we haven't been letting people use technology to stream audio or video off the Web," he said. When one class does a videoconference – with students at a school in Africa, for example – then everyone else needs to avoid using the network because "every single piece of bandwidth had to be devoted to the videoconference."

Students notice the limitations as well, said Matt Erlinger, the technology coordinator for UMS. "They're doing things on their cellphones that they can't do on our network," he said.

Owen said the network would be more efficient if it is "closer to the majority of users."

Those "users" are most likely working from the middle and high schools, where about half the district's population learns and where, Owen said, users will have "greatly increased response" due to the move.

Before the upgrade, when Lodes tried to input her students' grades into the computer, there could be a lag time, maybe a minute per student. Add up those minutes for the dozens of students in each of her band classes, and that's a huge waste of time.

With the updated network, "those necessities that we have no choice about will be faster," she said.

Linked in

In part two of the incremental upgrades, information in Urbana will go underground.

In the last few weeks, workers have installed fiber optic lines winding around schools and city buildings, including Urbana middle and high schools and Leal, Wiley and Prairie elementary schools (the other schools, as well as park district facilities, will happen in phases later this spring and beyond).

In the next 30 days, those buildings will be "lit up," that is to say, they'll start getting faster Internet connections and be linked to each other in ways not possible on the old networks, said Bill DeJarnette, the head of information technology for the city of Urbana.

Compared with the current network systems, the fiber optic connection is like "the difference between a county road and a highway," he said. "It just moves more data."

All of the public facilities will connect to the Illinois Century Network, a state-run network for public institutions, DeJarnette said. "The University of Illinois is working with us to connect our network pathways to ICN."

Working with funding from the school district and the city – roughly splitting about a $130,000 cost – both bodies are able to afford what they couldn't otherwise, he said. Ideally, the fiber optic cables will be configured in a loop, where even if a cord is cut on one part, the connection can run the other way so there's no interruption in service.

He also said the fiber optic system means less reliance on outside companies to provide those services, and could be used for public access, though not through the Illinois Century Network, DeJarnette said.

Within about 30 days, the system should be ready to go out to the schools, city and county building and other first-phase locations, he said.

Erlinger sees so much potential in the new service, like using Animoto, a tool that allows people to create music videos. "If a kid was doing a presentation on World War II, they could do a visual essay ... using (images of) major events set to music," Erlinger said. "It would really enhance any kind of presentation that a student made."

Looking forward, he said, perhaps students could get accounts to store all their work from their time in the district.

Or perhaps the district could share a social networking space for people connected to Urbana schools, suggested Christopher Fuller, the schools' technology director.

Owen said the move costs about $5,000, and the new routers purchased cost about $40,000. Of $250,000 the district is putting toward technology upgrades this year, about half is going toward buying new computers and other equipment, and about half toward the fiber optic construction and other networking upgrades, he said.

Owen said checks of the moved system are lined up throughout the weekend, but plans are for everything to be back on line by the time school resumes on Tuesday. "We're planning on staying until it's done," he said.

But if an Urbana parent wants to check a grade or get an instant reply to an e-mail to a teacher, he said, be patient.

"If our Web site and if Skyward (student information system) is down over the weekend, that's to be expected," Owen said, adding that e-mails are being cached during the shutdown.

For Erlinger, no question the hiccup in service is worth it for the faster connection and larger storage space.

"The way they receive information, the way that they communicate it, it will all change," Erlinger said. "The potential of what we're going to be able to do educationally, it's phenomenal."

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