Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Broadband

Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Broadband

Article excerpt

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CHRISTINE COLEMAN THOUGHT she had made a good start in the City School District of New Rochelle (NY). The district technology director had talked Verizon, the local telecom provider, into helping her purchase 500 Droids for middle school and elementary school students at a reasonable price. The principal of New Rochelle High School had already diverted some textbook funds he had available into 200 netbooks for some of his students.

That, Coleman believed, would put a dent in the "digital divide" she saw in her suburban school district with a large immigrant community where nearly 40 percent of its 11,000 students are English language learners. Although she had not yet created a districtwide 1-to-1 computing program (she still hasn't), she felt that she was on her way.

But she kept driving by the local Home Depot in the evenings and on the weekends and seeing fifth-graders she recognized, bundled up in their parkas and seated out in front with their laptops open. Coleman noticed their parents in their parked cars and vans, waiting for them. When she asked, she learned the students were doing their homework, taking advantage of the hardware store's wireless access that they didn't have in their homes.

"It just broke my heart," Coleman says. "I thought, 'I have to do something."

America's schools and their students are becoming increasingly digitized. Thanks to developments like the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate program, philosophical shifts on the part of school boards and administrators, and the rapid proliferation of devices in schools and households, more campuses are wired and more students have access.

But not every student has the same access. Although the perception of many is that internet access is now nearly ubiquitous, the reality, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is that somewhere around 30 percent of American homes still do not have it. The NTIA also reports that, while 80 percent of the households in which family income is more than 185 percent above the official poverty line have internet access, less than 50 percent of households below 135 percent of the poverty level have the same access.

Despite an economic recession that has made millions of more students eligible for free and reduced lunches and forced thousands of school districts to rethink their long-term funding priorities, technology directors and superintendents are finding work-arounds to the access dilemma.

Some are learning ways to make sure terms like "anytime-anywhere" learning, which are tossed around so freely today, apply to every student, regardless of their families' economic status or where in their communities their homes are.

"school leaders who want things to happen find a way to make them happen," says Lucy Gray, project director for the Consortium for School Networkin (CoSN)'s Leadership for Mobile Learning initiative. "Creative leadership always knows how to rob Peter to pay Paul."

Fortunately, Coleman didn't need to rob anybody. All she needed was the notice from the FCC seeking applicants for its Learning On-the-Go pilot program. As a component of its much larger E-Rate program, the FCC would pick 20 schools or districts that had plans to provide wireless broadband connections beyond the school campus so that students--primarily from low-income families with limited internet service at home--would have the same access as other students.

E-Rate to the Rescue

The funding for this first year of Learning On-the-Go (2011-2012) was minuscule--$9 million--compared with the enormous amount of money distributed each year to provide broadband access to school buildings ($2.25 billion this year). But it was a start, and an opportunity that Coleman took advantage of when New Rochelle was one of the 20 districts and schools (out of 94 applicants) selected for the pilot. …

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