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Schools Should Widen Bandwidth Capacity, State Ed Tech Directors Say

By guest blogger Leo Doran

Despite major strides in getting schools connected to broadband internet—in part a legacy of the 2014 overhaul of the federal E-rate program—some educational leaders and policymakers are continuing to advocate for redoubled efforts to provide equitable access to education technology.

A report released today by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) is calling on schools and policymakers at all levels to continue to raise bandwidth targets to meet the increasing internet needs of students in schools.

SETDA is also calling on educators and policymakers to find ways to get students connected outside of school, to bridge an emerging divide known as "the homework gap." 

In addition to an author of the report, Christine Fox of SETDA, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, US DoED Office of Education Technology director Joseph South, and a number of state and local ed-tech officials spoke at a Capitol Hill event today hosted by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.

In her remarks, Rosenworcel celebrated the progress E-rate has made in getting 20 million more U.S. students connected to broadband in schools, before pivoting to her continued focus on the homework gap.

Citing Pew Research Center statistics that 5 million households with school-age children lack high-speed broadband while seven in 10 teachers assign internet-related homework, Rosenworcel argued that "we are shortchanging our students and our economy as a whole."

While arguing that the recent overhaul of the FCC Lifeline program is a promising start, she called for more federal policies to support local and state-level initiatives that target the homework gap.

For example, Rosenworcel favors loosening rules on how E-rate dollars are spent to support school districts looking to outfit their school buses with wireless internet modems.  In some cases districts have parked the buses near low-income housing at night to address the homework gap among their poorer students.

Meanwhile South focused his remarks on improving connections that pipe broadband to K-12 school buildings.

He pointed out that major trends towards customizable learning software and cloud-based learning management systems are putting increasingly heavy demands on school networks.

"We can't think of this as optional," said South, referring to students' need to have access to a high speed internet connection in class.

The report, entitled "The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning," is presented as an update to the 2012 version, with revised bandwidth targets and updated examples of successful state and local connectivity initiatives.

The four main recommendations highlighted in the report include:

  • Increase infrastructure to support student-centered learning. Districts should plan to continuously increase network capacity.  According to the report, the average school district should be prepared to accommodate a tripling of its bandwidth demand in the next three years.
  • Design infrastructure to meet capacity targets. Networks should be designed to support student learning, rather than simply the administrative needs of staff.  To this end, statewide broadband initiatives, or district purchasing consortia, can be employed to defray costs.
  • Ensure equity of access for all students outside of school. Much like a CoSN report from earlier this year, SETDA is pushing for an "all of the above" approach to bridging the homework gap. Strategies include outreach to low-income families and forging community partnerships to provide students access to the internet when they are out of school. 
  • Leverage state resources to increase broadband access. SETDA is calling on state policymakers to take an active role in increasing broadband access through initiatives such as E-rate funding matches or building state broadband networks.

Tracy Weeks, the executive director of SETDA, echoed a recurring theme of both the report and the Hill briefing—that broadband connectivity is linked to principles of equal opportunity in education—in a statement released with the report.

"Today's students need robust bandwidth access to help ensure that their learning experiences are effectively preparing them for college and future careers," she said.


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