UW Information Technology

The K-20 Education Network connects students in tens of thousands of classrooms across Washington state to a rich array of online resources

Two children learning together.

Elementary school students in Walla Walla, Washington, love the activities that they access through the K-20 Education Network — a state-funded, high-speed, high-capacity broadband network that supports K-12 school districts, colleges, universities and libraries across Washington.

By Elizabeth Sharpe

The second graders at Berney Elementary School can barely sit still. They are teeming with enthusiasm, riveted to their individual Chromebooks by an online game called Candy Quest that teaches them to solve coding puzzles by guiding a candy troll through a series of obstacles to collect gumdrops.

The game — like many of the online resources used by their teacher, Michelle Shaul, and her colleagues in the Walla Walla Public Schools — is available anywhere, anytime for free through the internet.

“They love it,” Shaul said of her students. “They’re learning a really powerful skill — how to tackle a problem. And because it’s a game, the risk is really low.”

The online connection in Shaul’s classroom comes from the K-20 Education Network, a state-funded, high-speed, high-capacity broadband network that meets the needs of K-12 school districts, colleges, universities and libraries across Washington — no matter how remote their location. The University of Washington plays a major role in supporting the network, with UW Information Technology (UW-IT) providing operations, engineering and 24×7 support.  This is part of the UW’s commitment to promoting regional partnerships, supporting education and providing equal opportunity for all.

On the southern edge of the Palouse, Walla Walla is the largest town in a region considered one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the nation. Just over 40 percent of the school district’s nearly 5,800 students are Hispanic and just under 60 percent are from families with incomes below the poverty level.

The district joined the K-20 Network when it first became operational in 1997. Funded by the Washington State Legislature, the K-20 Network was one of the first broadband educational networks in the country.

Then, as now, its aim is to provide centrally managed, affordable and reliable network connectivity across the state in order to make educational resources equally accessible and affordable to all.

“There are many haves and have nots in the state,” said Noah Pitzer, who leads UW-IT’s support for the K-20 Network. “One of the main drivers of the K-20 Network is that all schools can have access to the educational resources that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Lessons from the information superhighway

For the Walla Walla schools, the K-20 Network has proven critical, said Forrest Baker, the district’s director of technology and library services. As more and more curriculum has gone online, and teachers like Shaul increasingly rely on Google Classroom and Google apps for education, Baker has used the K-20 Network to leverage the infrastructure needed to support the phenomenal growth of the connected classroom.

Forrest Baker
Director of Technology and Library Services, Walla Walla Public Schools

A key goal for Baker, and the district, is to ensure that all students benefit equally from the technology. Toward that end, Baker instituted standards for audio, video and student device technology across the district, so no matter what classroom or school, no matter how tech-savvy the teacher, the tech and access to the tech is the same.

At Garrison Middle School, eighth graders in Conor Fish’s Social Studies class access their homework, turn it in and get feedback online. Sixth-grade students in Stephanie Penrose’s Medical Detective’s class watch a streaming video of a deep-sea diver and researcher, and then test their reaction times using a game they access online through their Chromebooks. The seventh and eighth graders in Mike Bertram’s Robotics class will soon turn from constructing gear sets with Legos to building and programming robots, using software downloaded to class computers. And the high school students in Jeffrey Townsend’s audio and video production class at the SeaTech Skills Center at Walla Walla Community College will showcase their music and movie projects online.

“Almost every single one of these programs uses some sort of internet connectivity,” Baker said. “It’s nearly all web-based, and all of the internet goes through K-20. But most people don’t know about the network or the services it provides.”

Bridging the digital divide

Whether students are in Walla Walla, Seattle or Cape Flattery on the Olympic Peninsula, they all have the same access to the K-20 high-speed network. The network connects approximately 400 locations, in every county of the state, with K-12 school districts and tribal schools making up 270 of these.

“Those locations that might have been off-grid; we bring the grid to them,” said Amanda Rowe, project manager with the K-20 Network.  That can mean that beyond the students, the whole community benefits from the educational network coming to the district.

The K-20 Education Network has approximately 400 locations, and is in every county in Washington state. It supports K-12 school districts, tribal schools, community and technical and baccalaureate colleges, Washington State University and a number of private colleges and public television stations.

Dennis Small, the educational technology director in the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, has been involved in the K-20 Education Network since its inception. He points to several examples of how school districts have leveraged the network to build out internet access in their communities.

The Kent School District put in kiosks to act as hotspots in low-income housing areas, and the Pullman Public Schools put Wi-Fi on their school buses. Many school districts have partnered with local libraries to stay open late so that parents and students can access the online apps and the other information and resources that students need.

Most of the Olympic Peninsula had limited to no access to a high-speed broadband before the K-20 Network began, said Small.

Underwater cables were built across the Hood Canal, explained Rowe, and the network’s vendors placed infrastructure throughout the region to provide internet to the schools, and eventually to the communities too.

“Pooling services is the largest benefit,” Rowe said. “Collectively, schools on the network have better services.”

But the benefit of the K-20 Network goes deeper, and broader, than that.

Providing this kind of link to educational resources is an essential part of the state’s efforts to bridge the digital divide — the gap between the information haves and have nots. This divide can perpetuate inequities between communities disadvantaged by race, income and location, numerous studies have shown. Reliable access to the internet is crucial to success in school and in life.

24 x 7 support

This is why connectivity in the classroom is vital. And making sure that connectivity is always available is where the University of Washington, and UW-IT, come in.

“In this day and age, the entire lesson plan may be online. It is critical to get service back up as soon as possible,” said Rowe. “That’s why I love working with the UW team. I know when a site goes down, they make sure the problem gets taken care of.”

The Walla Walla school district is 265 miles from the University’s Seattle campus, but like every site across the state, UW-IT staff monitor its connection to the K-20 Network around the clock.

If a connection goes down, the monitoring team is on it, said Pitzer, who’s at the UW. “We should notice it before the school district does,” he said. The team communicates with contacts in network locations across the state and works with vendors to get the network back up and running.

“Partnering with UW-IT means the network and its customers have access to a world-class level of engineering,” Rowe said. “We depend on them.”

The network is governed by a consortium of representatives from each sector and paid for with a mix of state appropriation and member institution co-pays. In 2011, the State Auditor’s Office found that the current operational management and support for the K-20 Network is the most cost-effective way to achieve the network’s objectives, and it would cost millions more to transition to other systems and networks. By leveraging the existing systems and staff that are responsible for the UW’s own fiber network adds to the network’s cost-effectiveness.

The UW also partners to support other services available to those in the K-20 Network, including Zoom video conferencing, which is often used for distance learning and teachers’ professional development. Two years ago, the UW partnered with K-20 to introduce a statewide system to mitigate distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS), a malicious attempt to overwhelm internet traffic and bring the connection down.

Michelle Shaul uses an online game to teach coding in her class. More than 57,000 classrooms and 1.5 million students have access to the internet through the K-20 high-speed network.

With this kind of support, students in Michelle Shaul’s class don’t have to know about the K-20 Network. They just know that connectivity is there when they need it.

“It’s a heck of a long way since we got the first CD-ROM,” said Shaul, who has been teaching in the district for 30 years and remembers when K-20 first started. “We thought the things we used to do were amazing. But that’s nothing compared to what student can do now.”

Learn more: UW-IT provides engineering and operational support for the UW’s wired and wired network, and for the K-20 Education Network, Pacific Northwest Gigapop, Internet2 and others too.