New network 'opens the door to so many opportunities' for learning

Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband may be a high-speed fiber-optic Internet network that's connecting local institutions and underserved households.

For local school districts that will be connected through UC2B, the value doesn't necessarily lie in fast connections, but in what that means for collaborations both between their own schools and with other institutions around the community.

Officials in the Champaign and Urbana school districts say they're looking forward to finding ways to work with other institutions the network will link them with, including the University of Illinois and Parkland College.

Plus, said Julie Anderson, server technician at Champaign schools who has been working closely with UC2B, a faster connection between the district's buildings will mean students will save time logging in or saving their work — leaving more time for actual learning.

Many of Urbana's schools are already on a fiber-optic network, said Don Owen, Urbana's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

That has meant teachers have had reliable access to high-speed Internet and can stream video without slowing everyone else's connection.

"It opens the door to so many opportunities," Owen said, and teachers can do things like teach students on mobile devices because they have access to a high-speed wireless connection within their schools.

Champaign schools

Being connected to UC2B will open up the school districts to new opportunities to enhance teaching.

For example, in Champaign, Director of Educational Technology Dave Hohman said UC2B's fast connections between buildings will be especially helpful when a high school teacher is instructing middle school students.

In the past, either the teacher went to the middle school, or the middle school students came to the high school.

But the school district is buying document cameras that can transmit audio, as well, so students can sit through the class without actually being in the building.

Hohman said new instructional technology coaches in the school district can help teachers find other ways to use technology in their classrooms and can "really facilitate this kind of collaboration," Hohman said.

Hohman said people in the Champaign schools are looking forward to working with other local institutions, such as the UI. Some projects might be those students and classrooms already participate in, such as the Bugscope at the UI's Beckman Institute, Hohman said.

Already, students send in bugs and then are able to see and manipulate them under a scanning electron microscope.

With the UC2B connection, there won't be any problems with seeing the bug under the microscope in the highest possible resolution, he said.

"We can really step up those activities when we're interacting with the university," he said.

Anderson said the speed of the Internet in the Champaign schools isn't necessarily going to be faster — it's capped by the school district's Internet service provider, the Illinois Century Network. (That network provides Internet to schools, libraries, colleges, universities, museums, local governments, state agencies and hospitals throughout the state.)

But what will really improve is the speed of communication between buildings in the district.

That speed has been 100 megabits per second and will increase to 1 gigabit per second — a tenfold increase. The difference between the two is as great, Anderson said, as water flowing through a straw as compared to a fire hose.

"Just being able to get data back and forth is tremendously (faster)," Anderson said.

For example, every student has his or her own drive on the school district's server space at its data center at Booker T. Washington STEM Academy.

It's possible that several hundred students and staff members may be trying to access those servers at the same time during the school day. With a slower connection can come a bottleneck, Anderson said.

"It will take a while to save that assignment and go on to the next classroom," Anderson said, if they need to save their work as class ends.

While just two of the school district's building are connected to UC2B so far, Anderson said, she's looking forward to seeing how it works once all schools are connected. She said the big push was to get Carrie Busey connected to Booker T. Washington. Carrie Busey's new school features voice over IP phones, which rely on the UC2B connection. The school district didn't want to be locked into a contract with another phone service provider when the school opened, Anderson said. Not having that contract will save the school district "significant amounts of money," Anderson said.

"I've been seeing some good work happening there," she said, referring to Carrie Busey. "I feel very confident that this is going to work very nicely for all of us."

Carrie Busey Principal Jeff Scott admitted having a little apprehension about being one of the first schools being hooked up to UC2B. But when he came to work for the first day at the new Savoy location, he plugged his computer in to the school's Internet access and it worked immediately.

Scott said it was the fastest connection he's used. In the late 1990s, he taught a class at Central High that had students building a website for the school. The Internet was down a lot during that time, he said.

Compared with that, the connection at the new Carrie Busey is "unbelievable."

That's especially good at the new school, which features about 35 SMART boards (compared with five or six at the previous building) and about 225 computers that are part of the wireless Internet connection in the building.

Urbana schools

As far as fiber optic goes, most of the schools in Urbana were ahead of the curve.

Many were connected to a fiber-optic network in 2009, in a collaboration with Champaign County, Owen said.

However, UC2B will connect King Elementary and the Washington Early Childhood Center to that network, as the school district didn't have the money to connect those buildings three years ago, he said.

The fiber-optic network made for much faster Internet connections within the schools, Owen said.

Erin Lodes, who teaches band and technology at Urbana Middle School, said fiber optic "transformed our ability to access the wide world of resources online."

"There was so much we couldn't take advantage of before, because it was impolite to access any streaming media when it required nearly a fifth of the school's bandwidth to watch one video," Lodes said.

Now, she can have her class use Skype to talk with a professional photographer in his office, or stream video.

Carol Godoy, technology coordinator at Urbana High, said the school used to be involved in a program called Global Nomad, which used video conferencing technology similar to Skype.

But that was in 2005 and '06, and in order to do it, no one else in the building could use their computers.

UHS no longer participates, Godoy said, but "we wouldn't have that problem now."

And while many of Urbana's schools have been reaping the benefits of faster Internet connections for a few years, being a part of the UC2B will also mean faster connections with other local institutions also on the network.

"It's still a little of a novel thing," Owen said about community institutions being connected by fiber optics. "A lot of organizations are still wrapping their heads around it."

He said the school district has had some preliminary discussions about offering more dual-credit classes with Parkland.

"It will be so fast, it will be as if you're sitting in the room," Owen said.

And because UC2B will be going to some homes, students who live there will also have fast connections with the school district.

While all of Urbana's middle and high school students have their own folder within the school district, Owen said, the district is now discussing how students will access those folders remotely and how to keep connections safe and secure.

Lodes said she's hoping more students having access to the network from their homes will help them both with homework and their own explorations.

"As a technology teacher, most of my resources are computer-based," Lodes said. "I would love to assign independent assignments that use our class website and computer resources, because sending home a worksheet for a media class is inauthentic. However, I still have a good number of students who do not have a computer at home with reliable Internet access."

Although, even though schools may have better access than ever to data from other schools and to the Internet, Urbana Middle School Principal Scott Woods pointed out that it does no good if teachers or students are using slow computers.

Also, he said it's important to keep in mind that technology should enhance teaching in the classroom.

Quality of instruction rests with the teacher, he said, whether he or she is using a textbook or a computer.

 

Fast facts on UC2B

- What is it? UC2B, which has also been known locally as Big Broadband, is a high speed fiber optic Internet network that will connect local institutions in Champaign, Urbana and Savoy and bring low-cost, high-speed Internet service to households identified as being underserved, or having less than 41 percent adoption of broadband Internet. UC2B is an intergovernmental consortium between the University of Illinois and the cities of Champaign and Urbana.

- When did it start? Discussions about UC2B first began in Champaign-Urbana in early 2009. The groundbreaking for UC2B happened in September 2011.

- Who's paying for it? UC2B is being paid for with a $22.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The state gave the project a $3.5 million grant, and other local groups invested an additional $3.4 million.

- Will it expand? Champaign-Urbana has entered into a competition to have a company called Gigabit Squared expand the network to more homes and businesses. However, some local experts and the Urbana City Council have expressed concern about whether that's the best way to expand the network.

Sources: uc2b.net, News-Gazette archives

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brandonbowersox wrote on August 26, 2012 at 9:08 am

UC2B offers fiber-optic Internet connectivity to homes in eligible C-U neighborhoods.  Type in your address to see if your home is eligible: http://uc2b.net/servicemap/ .  

Home connections in eligible neighborhoods are free, paid for by a federal grant if you commit to $19.99/month fast Internet service.  This Internet service provides gigabit speeds to local schools and institutions; some of the fastest connectivity in the country.

Check your address today: http://uc2b.net/servicemap/

sacrophyte wrote on August 26, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Brandon,

 

Would you mind voicing your opinions of Gigabit Squared vs the local effort to create a cooperative? This would be related to Meg's last paragraph ("Will it expand?").

 

With the very modest plans to utililize this amazing resource in various service buildings, I very much support and encourage folks to push for computer literacy classes that was unfortunately rejected as the second part of the grants. It seems to me that if UC2B really is meant to target the disadvantaged, we are in danger of missing that target.

 

Thanks to Meg for writing this up; there are, without a doubt, some very exciting things happening in our community with tons of potential. May we realize the assets close to home and not be afraid to embrace them.