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Building the Digital Learning Superhighway

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Next month there will be a lot of U.S. students holding an iPad looking at a spinning wheel. Cheaper devices, powerful apps, successful school models, and preparation for online assessments is boosting student access to technology. But in most places, the pipes won't be ready for all the traffic.

Evan Marwell intends to fix the problem--or at least make sure we all know about it. Other than Doug Levin, SETDA, Evan seems to be the only talking about a really big problem.

Marwell is a successful entrepreneur who joined the board of his daughter's school three years ago. After asking why the teachers weren't using more technology, he quickly found that the school had limited Internet access. Marwell did a little more digging and found that about 80 percent of US schools don't have sufficient Internet access to support digital learning.

"The problem is that nobody really knows," said Marwell. "We think most schools have connection of between three and 10 megabits, roughly equivalent to typical home broadband - but with 100x as many users." But he says, "The biggest issue of all is that nobody knows what our classrooms have. And if you don't know, you can't fix it."

"It's not just about the size of the pipe going into the school," said Marwell, "it's also the network within the school." Nearly all US schools are connected to the Internet but "83 percent of money invested on internal connections was invested before current generation of routers so a typical classroom may only get 10MB bandwidth even with big pipe coming to front door."

In January Marwell attended a meeting with then US CTO Aneesh Chopra where they discussed the problem. Chopra challenged Marwell to fix it. Marwell thought about it over the weekend and then launched EducationSuperHighway.

Marwell said, "I've had enough success in my life that I can devote myself to tackling this problem. I believe tech is one of the only levers we have given the budget situation in our schools."

Unlike some of the intractable problems we face, "This is completely do-able--it is a management and execution problem, a problem of information, a problem of expertise, and a collective purchasing problem. The government is investing $2.5 billion per year to fix this problem - we should be able to solve it!"

The technology readiness assessment that Pearson is conducting for the two testing consortia will help shed light on the problem but survey responses may be weak and most principals don't know how much broadband they have or what the actual Internet experience is in the classroom.

According to the National Broadband Map only a quarter of schools could get access to a 100mb connection if they wanted and that's what SETDA recommended per 1,000 users today. SETDA recommended one gigabyte per thousand by 2017. According to Marwell, this means that our telco and cable companies need to step up and deploy high speed infrastructure to school neighborhoods.

EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, is attacking the problem in several ways. They are conducting a national inventory of school internet access on September 10. They want every school to test their broadband using www.SchoolSpeedTest.org.

EducationSuperhighway's Education Geek Squad will help schools implement 100MB or better broadband infrastructure. They will address access and pricing by developing a platform to aggregate purchasing and will provide networking expertise to districts that need it.

They will work with policy makers to reform the E-Rate and encourage carriers to deploy high speed broadband to school neighborhoods.

A database of broadband infrastructure in every K-12 school will support development of roadmaps to 100MB or better for every school. To help build it, go to www.educationsuperhighway.org.

Disclosure: Pearson is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

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