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In some NYC schools, more laptops but too little bandwidth

As New York City plans to spend more on technology consultants and expand its online learning programs, an obstacle is presenting itself: schools aren’t as wired as people assumed.

At a panel discussion today about online learning — orchestrated by the city’s Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission — Wireless Generation CEO Larry Berger talked about the challenges software developers face when they work in public schools. Some schools have the bandwidth to support classrooms where each student has her own laptop. Others can barely give their teachers wireless access.

Asked about some of the problems classroom technology poses, Berger said:

I think one of the hard things is that it’s almost never the case that you get to work in a school that has all of the infrastructure that you wish it had. What we start learning as we try to do initiatives that assume that kids would be on a computer, connected, and learning at their own pace, is that we learned that the schools we thought were wired aren’t that wired. There are places where the internet can be found in that school, but in fact to really do that kind of work means you need to put a router in every classroom because of the amount of traffic that kids really working will generate. And then if you turn on really interesting multi-media video simulations, that means you need two routers in the classroom. And then it turns out you’re not as connected as you thought you were — there’s just not enough bandwidth — and those are the problems that everyone’s struggling with.

Berger’s comment could explain why the Department of Education’s capital plan calls for $176 million more for technology spending than it did in 2010. The plan says that without increased funding for bandwidth expansion and infrastructure, initiatives like the city’s Innovation Zone — which gives some schools laptops for every student and allows students to take courses online — can’t happen.

Meanwhile, other areas of the capital plan, such as funding for new school seats, have been cut by half.

I’ve heard concerns similar to Berger’s from principals, some of whom encourage their students to stay offline during their free periods when other students are trying to use wireless laptops in class.

Berger’s company Wireless Generation, an education technology company, was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation back in November, two weeks after the company brought on former Chancellor Joel Klein.