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A Better Grip on Online Access and Safety

A bill passed by Congress on Sept. 30 is likely to boost understanding of two crucial aspects of the vast online world that occupies a growing part of our lives: broadband access and child safety.

Of most immediate concern for schools is the bill's second section, authorizing a nationwide program to educate citizens about threats to children’s safety online and strategies to promote their safe use of the Internet.

The bill, numbered S. 1492, which President Bush is expected to sign, directs the Federal Trade Commission to start an advisory group that will evaluate the status of industry efforts to promote online safety, such as education and control technologies and age-appropriate labeling. The group will also take stock of Internet providers' success in reporting apparent child pornography and crime, and of the development of technology to help parents shield children from inappropriate material online.

Schools that receive federal E-rate funding will also be required to educate minors about appropriate online behavior, including participation in social networking Web sites and in chat rooms. Another required topic is “cyber bullying awareness and response.”

The National PTA and the Consortium for School Networking are among the education groups that lobbied for this section and have hailed its passage. Incidentally the authors of the section were Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

Broadband Access

The first part of the bill would shed new light on the nation’s progress toward providing its citizens with affordable access to broadband, or high-speed Internet. (Dial-up service is basically irrelevant to the video and interactive features that are now shaping the Web.)

But broadband access is still in short supply in many rural areas, or the doors are closed to people of limited means. (For a take on what broadband means to schools, check out a recent article on this subject by my co-blogger, Katie Ash.)

The bill requires the federal government to collect more, more regular, and better data on broadband services—and to encourage the states to do the same, in partnership with public and private groups and businesses.

The Federal Communications Commission must also assess the geographical areas that are not served by any broadband provider, and to compare broadband access in similar communities in the United States and at least 25 other countries.

School districts may get a chance to participate with other local groups and businesses on a regional or county “local technology planning team,” which the law would fund in each state under a matching grant program.

The teams would set strategy on how to help spread affordable broadband; on boosting technological literacy, increased computer ownership, and broadband use; and on spurring grassroots efforts to promote activities such as investment in related technologies.

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