Digital textbooks, streaming video lectures and online class discussions: these are a few examples of how education in the 21st century is moving more to the virtual realm. But with that movement comes the need for faster and more reliable Internet connections for students and teachers, both inside and outside the classroom. According to a new report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), states and school districts have plenty of work left to meet those increasing demands.

“It is a simple fact that access to high-speed broadband is now as vital a component of K-12 school infrastructure as electricity, air conditioning, and heating,” the authors wrote to open the report. They recounted several statistics that illustrate the shortcomings of most schools’ current digital capacity:

  • Nearly 80 percent of schools say their current broadband connections are unable to meet their needs;
  • About 67 percent of schools subscribe to Internet service below 25 megabytes-per-second (MBPS), half the speed recommended by SETDA;
  • Residential broadband adoption has leveled at 65 percent since 2009, meaning a sizable portion of students (particularly those from low-income families) do not have access to high-speed Internet at home.

These figures manifest in classrooms nationwide on a daily basis, according to SETDA: 78 percent of teachers who said they used online videos as part of their instruction reported disruptions or other problems with streaming. More broadly, as Governing reported in April, an estimated 18 million Americans live in areas that lack broadband access, and low-income families typically have fewer options and, as a result, face higher prices. The United States also ranked 25th in an international survey of download speeds.

Reliance on Internet-based learning is likely to only increase in coming years: 56 percent of schools expect to adopt e-textbooks in the next two to three years. An estimated 1.8 million students participate at least part-time in online classes, according to the International Association of K-12 Online Learning. More than 30 states have already implemented some kind of online assessments, and the 45 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards will be expected to be ready for virtual testing by the 2014-2015 school year.

“School has gone from being a noun, a place where you go to learn, to a verb with a focus on learning,” said Holly Sagues, chief policy officer at the Florida Virtual School, during a discussion at the Brookings Institution earlier this month on digital learning.

To remedy the broadband deficit and prepare for increasing usage, SETDA issued some connection speed targets and pointed to several state initiatives that demonstrate how states and localities can address the problem. By 2014-2015, the association is pushing for schools to acquire broadband access from an Internet provider of up to 100 MBPS per 1,000 students and teachers. By 2017-2018, the goal would be to increase the broadband width to more than 1,000 MBPS -- or 1 gigabyte-per-second (GBPS).

Some policymakers have pursued statewide programs to address their schools’ growing Internet needs. In Utah, school districts and higher education institutions have coordinated with Internet providers to create the Utah Education Network, which will eventually connect all colleges and universities, public schools and public libraries on a statewide network. About 90 percent of the state’s K-12 schools are already linked to the network, and speeds range from 45 MBPS to 1 GBPS, in line with SEDTA’s recommendations.

Maine and Nebraska have also established statewide broadband initiatives for educational entities. NetworkMaine is a collaboration between the Maine Department of Education, the Maine State Library, the Maine Office of Information Technology and the University of Maine System. More than 900 schools and libraries have joined the Maine School and Library Network, logging on at speeds between 10 MPBS and 1 GBPS, free of charge. Nebraska school districts (grouped into Educational Service Units or ESU’s) participate in broadband purchasing consortiums, allowing them to negotiate better prices for Internet service while ESU managers oversee the use distribution across the consortium.

SETDA also urged state and local policymakers to push for continued federal funding to expand broadband access. The federal E-Rate program awarded nearly $60 million toward that goal between 1998 and 2012. The program also allows some school districts and public libraries to access discounts between 20 and 90 percent for high-speed Internet service.

“To compete globally and develop the innovators our country needs to lead the world, all of our students must have access to adequate bandwidth in the classroom,” the report's authors concluded, “in the home, and wherever learning takes place, regardless of their economic status or geography.”

View the full SETDA report below. Click here for GOVERNING Data’s interactive county-by-county map of broadband speeds and availability.