Leveraging Howard County’s Inter-County Broadband Network for Education

Originally published in School Construction News

By Renee A. Foose, Ed.D.

The Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) provides the highest broadband capacity of any school system in the State of Maryland and one of the highest in the nation through the Inter-County Broadband Network (ICBN). By bringing the bandwidth, speed and reliability needed for advanced educational technologies, the ICBN supports a next-generation learning environment, increased access and improved well-being for all Howard County students and staff.

The ICBN is part of the One Maryland broadband project, which was created to provide affordable, accessible high-speed broadband access to community institutions, businesses and residents throughout the state. Thanks to ICBN, each HCPSS high school now has 5 gigabytes per second of capacity, compared to the 100 megabits we had previously with a commercial carrier. Middle schools have 3 gigabytes per second of capacity, 30 times the previous capability, and elementary schools have 10 times better capability with 1 gigabyte per second of capacity.

ICBN gives teachers a far broader palette of options for creating dynamic and relevant learning activities that link the classroom to the real world. Our philosophy is that “teachers are always our best App,” so we focus on supporting teachers in making the most of every instructional tool, whether traditional or online.

Here are a few ways improved Internet infrastructure supports HCPSS’ comprehensive approach to education.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)
The school system’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program enables every secondary classroom to become a high-tech learning space. Our BYOD program allows high school and middle school students to use their personal devices for HCPSS-sanctioned instructional activities in school.

Students and staff report a number of benefits, including ease in completing assignments and accessing online resources that enhance classroom content; an increase in student engagement, autonomy and responsible use of technology in school; and a decreased need for printed instructional materials.

Teachers can “flip” their classroom, meaning students can learn at home, through lessons on video, and do “homework,” or activities, in the classroom. Teachers are on hand when questions arise during problem-solving exercises. Students write in-class essays, art students post and share their creative works, students develop quizzes for each other, and more.

We make sure learning is not affected if a student does not have an Internet-connected device at school. Students can receive loaner devices, use computers or devices in classrooms or media centers, and some classes meet in school computer labs.

World Language Program
The World Language Program is an excellent illustration of how modern technology tools support differentiated and accessible learning in one academic subject throughout all grade levels. HCPSS’ World Language Program aims to graduate every student with at least intermediate proficiency in a world language through language immersion, continued study and engaging instruction. The school system encourages all students to utilize online instructional materials by providing computer access during school time and at after-school programs.

With differentiated learning, students in one class can learn simultaneously about the same themes at different levels of rigor, based on individual readiness. At the elementary level, this kind of flexible learning is enhanced with technology tools, such as BrightLink projectors that enable interactive whiteboard activities and classroom iPads used in learning centers. With the support of dedicated World Language laptop carts, middle school language teachers are implementing a model of blended learning where students rotate among stations in the classroom for various individual or group activities.

Technology provides better access to world language instruction, which is taught to all Howard County public school students. For example, teachers leverage the power of technology tools to remove barriers to language learning for special needs students. Teachers use a program that translates language into braille to support language learning for visually impaired students, as well as a wide variety of accessibility tools, such as text-to-speech and speech-to-text, to modify instruction.

BrightLink Interactive Projector
The BrightLink projector is one technology tool that many HCPSS teachers employ to make learning more visual, interactive and fun. This high-performance projector is ceiling-mounted and can project on multiple surfaces, serving as the classroom whiteboard and TV. Teachers report that class participation has increased as students focus on the engaging lessons and take more risks going up to the whiteboard to show what they know.

With the BrightLink projector’s ability to connect to computers and mobile devices wirelessly, and work with an interactive pen, the possibilities are endless for interactive lessons. Classes can Skype or Google Hangout with experts in the field; students can highlight key concepts in YouTube videos with the pen; teachers can use apps to display instant data, such as student responses in graph format, and more.

Online Curriculum and Classes
Technology helps enable HCPSS to offer a living, dynamic curriculum through the Canvas Learning System that can be updated quicker than printed textbooks. HCPSS curriculum, written by Howard County educators, provides teachers with lesson resources, supports and training to teach to curriculum standards. Having the school system’s curriculum online through this learning management platform makes the content more visible and helps ensure all HCPSS students receive an equitable education by learning the same essential materials.

When it comes to student-facing online content, the HCPSS Digital Education Program enhances traditional instruction with digital content; encourages blended and online instruction to promote anywhere, anytime learning; and provide students with the option to extend learning through advanced and college-level courses. We offer synchronous distance learning for Chinese, Advanced Placement and advanced math classes by blending both live online and face-to-face formats, so students can take classes not physically available at their home school. Students in multiple locations are able to interact with their teacher and classmates in real time, using teleconferencing and shared online learning spaces. Distance learning helps us broaden educational offerings for all students while conserving costs and school system resources.

HCPSS’ telemedicine program, offered in six HCPSS elementary schools, is the perfect example of how advanced technology can address the most basic and personal of needs. The school-based telemedicine program, offered in partnership with the Howard County Health Department and the Howard County General Hospital, complements and expands existing school health services through technology that connects a child in school to a health care provider and his/her guardian in separate locations.

Telemedicine helps increase attendance and academic achievement by providing quality school-based care. Parents miss less work time by calling into the virtual exams, and children miss less classroom instruction time by getting quick care directly in the school setting. Last school year, 95 percent of students returned to class after their telemedicine visit, compared to 75 percent prior to the program.

Telemedicine embodies HCPSS’ holistic approach to student well-being, family engagement and community collaboration. HCPSS is one of the first telemedicine programs in the state to partner with community pediatric practices, enabling continuity of care by increasing students’ access to their primary care provider. Telemedicine also supports students without health insurance or a medical provider.

The ICBN aligns with HCPSS’ Vision 2018 strategic plan by helping us fulfill the promise of preparation for each of our students with individualized, engaging learning environments. High-tech learning spaces in Howard County schools enable students to better connect with one another and to a world of possibilities, ensuring all students have equal access to learning opportunities. Overall, advanced technologies support our students’ well-being, so they are ready to learn and ultimately thrive in this dynamic world.

Dr. Renee A. Foose is superintendent of schools for the Howard County Public School System (Md.).