Bridging the Connectivity Gap in Our Nation’s Schools

BY TYLER S. THIGPEN

This piece appeared in our 2015 print journal. You can order your copy here

The conversation that most haunted Marshall Chambers—former director of strategic initiatives for Barrow County Schools, a rural district in Georgia—happened in 2001 at one of the district’s high schools.

Chambers, himself a graduate of Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, was lamenting a talented student’s decision not to apply to the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“Why won’t you apply, Miranda? You’ve got what it takes . . . You’re Georgia Tech material!”

“Thanks for askin’, Mr. Chambers, but I just don’t see no point. Especially since I’m gonna end up working at Walmart like everybody else.”1

Tired of hearing similar answers that, for Chambers, lacked possibility and promise, he teamed up with teachers, local business leaders, and undergraduate professors to make use of his high school’s newly installed high-speed broadband connection and bring the university to his students. The next year, using video technology, the high school’s physics class joined in virtually on one of Georgia Tech’s nanotechnology laboratories to get an inside look.

That year, not one, but twelve of the twenty-five students in the class applied to Georgia Tech. They were the first applicants to Georgia Tech in the high school’s history.

Today, Chambers directs Georgia Tech’s Direct to Discovery program, which deliv- ers research labs into K–12 classrooms using high-speed networks and videoconferencing. This allows researchers to actively participate in K–12 outreach from the convenience of their labs and gives K–12 teachers and students access to “rich, up-to-date content that inspires, motivates, and empowers experiential learning.”2

Granting safe, high-speed Internet access for the entirety of the school day to every student in the United States and subsequently integrating Internet use into teaching and learning as quickly as possible will help us attain immediate and far-reaching improvements in our preK–12 system. Unfortunately, however, stories like the one in Barrow County are not the norm in our nation’s schools.

Why Internet Access in Schools Matters

Right now, schools in the United States are educating young people at a moment in history that is in limbo between the Internet’s initial creation and an age when, as the Pew Research Center and Elon University predict for 2025, the Internet will be “like electric- ity:” pervasive yet imperceptible.3

At least two things make navigating the middle of this evolution awkward for both students and educators. The first is that the education sector has fallen drastically behind the business sector. While an estimated 96 percent of non-union employees have for the past five years had solid Internet access and made daily use of the Internet in conducting business, currently only 37 percent of our nation’s schools have even sufficient bandwidth.4

The second factor is that educational research examining Internet integration’s contribution to student learning is nascent. Despite emerging evidence that disparate access exacerbates student achievement gaps,5 but that Internet integration can help,6 educators and policymakers have been painfully slow in reaching consensus that full Internet integration will improve learning.

Every year that young people attend school without fully integrated Internet access, we uphold uneven learning levels and advance a cohort of graduates with too little practice in skills they need for an increasingly interconnected society.

Extensive Internet access will help level the playing field for students. Few corroborating anecdotes are as compelling as that of Sugata Mitra, who in 1999 left a computer with Internet in a New Delhi slum and watched what neighborhood children would do with it.7 With no prior computer experience, they quickly figured out how to make it work. Eventually, some students demonstrated better reading skills, others deeper knowledge, and still others increased bold- ness and expressiveness in the classroom. A similarly uplifting experience for all US students who currently operate in a system pressured by income-, social-, gender-, and achievement-centered disparities would be a welcome inspiration.

A growing number of investigations reveal significant achievement and engagement impact when teachers guide students through Internet-based inquiry. The Internet, studies suggest, extends a teacher’s reach and broadens students’ experiences, complementing “what a great teacher does naturally.”8 More specifically, Internet use gives students agency as they self-direct and make their own learning decisions;9 forces them to navigate bias, complexity, and extraneous information; and increases their likelihood to engage in the writing process, practice in-depth research skills, and develop multimedia skills through “interpretation and production of knowledge.”10 Internet use even gives students confidence; teens with Internet believe they can do better in school.11

Full access to the web will also help modernize preK–12 teaching and learning and, in turn, narrow the growing gap be- tween the number of job applicants with the necessary entry-level skills and the number of college graduates who cannot find work.12 Before the Internet, it made sense to have students command the disciplines (math, science, English, etc.) in preparation for life’s next steps. Today, however, it is paramount for college and career readiness that students know some core content knowledge, know how to find the rest, and also command such “twenty-first century skills” as creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. To that end, the Internet is indis- pensable. Fortunately, open access is a real possibility.

How to Make Open Access in Schools a Reality

Decision makers have multiple, feasible ways to repair the current misalignment between espoused and enacted policies in the marketplace and preK–12 education. The first solution is bolstering infrastructure.

Schools need more bandwidth. Since 2003, 99 percent of US schools have been connected to the Internet thanks to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-rate program, which invests $2.25 billion annually in public education for telecommunications services and Internet access.13 Still, for some US schools, being connected means having about as much Internet as a typical home, thus severely limiting how many people can get online simultaneously. According to the FCC, roughly 31 percent of suburban and urban public schools and 41 percent of rural public schools do not have the fiber needed for robust Wi-Fi.14 Distressingly, 68 percent of all US districts report “not a single school in their district can meet long-term, high-speed Internet connectivity targets today.”15

Perversely, having limited broadband infrastructure can actually be worse for promoting Internet uptake than having no connection at all. Evan Marwell, chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Education Superhighway, calls this conundrum the “connectivity gap.”16 It generally begins with a district procuring a modest but insufficient amount of bandwidth, meaning that students and teachers experience difficulty logging on to the Internet. Teachers, wanting to maximize instruction, then end up not trusting, and therefore not using, the network. As a result, most of the available bandwidth is not fully utilized. District deci- sion makers then see bandwidth is not being used and postpone procuring more. Thus, teachers continue to neither trust nor use the network, and the cycle continues.17 This chicken-and-egg scenario, as Marwell calls it, reveals how a widespread lack of under- standing of broadband standards on the part of decision makers can cause students and teachers to miss out.

Full bandwidth at full speed with far-reaching fiber should be the priority. “We need,” Marwell argues, “the capability for students in every classroom to be on a device doing something unique, whether it’s all the time or intermittently throughout the day.”18 To get there, the State Educational Technology Directors Association recommends schools embrace external Internet connections to their service provider of one gigabit per second for every one thousand students and staff.19 For more nuanced bandwidth benchmarks, educators can look to more Internet-progressive industries for other successful contention ratios—i.e., the ratio of potential maximum demand to actual bandwidth. Once infrastructure is set, devices can follow. But right now, schools, districts, and states need leaders to embrace today’s broadband necessity: comprehensive access that allows every student to simultaneously use the Internet on separate devices.

Besides strengthening infrastructure, a second critical enterprise for decision makers is building the social, economic, and political will necessary for system-level integration of Internet in schools. To do so in the present climate requires that leaders shrewdly balance urgency with robust processes, avoiding perilous approaches like the one embraced by former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) superintendent John Deasy.

In 2014, Deasy sought, unsuccessfully, to purchase over 700,000 learning-enabled iPads for LAUSD’s students and teachers from publishing giant Pearson. His decision to leverage the leeway afforded by an unclear California procurement law proved ineffective in Los Angeles, and a wicked combination of approval processes, board interests, competitive bidding, teacher training, district rollouts, unseen email communications, and especially timing and transparency massively complicated his intentions. In October, Deasy stepped down, leaving the task to another.20 For leaders who take up this and other school Internet campaigns, Deasy’s story should be a sober reminder of the need to garner support at every corner of one’s authorizing environment.

Negotiating Internet economics, and achieving broadband affordability in particular, is yet another aim leaders can adopt to bend a complex fiscal environment toward improving student web access. In a September 2014 speech, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler shared his concern that “competition is the most effective tool for driving innovation, investment, and consumer and economic benefits. Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases.”21 Wheeler’s comments are based on the reality that in some areas of the country, service providers do not invest enough in their networks to provide the speeds schools need. In other areas, there is only one service provider. Consequently, instances are not uncommon of providers taking advantage of schools by overcharging them for broadband and of district officials unwittingly paying more than they should via long-term contracts.22 While the FCC’s recent E-rate Modernization Orders significantly increase payments to schools for Wi-Fi and give education leaders a better idea of how much to reasonably pay, options still will be limited in many areas, and overpricing is conceivable.23

Successful pathways for overcoming affordability issues vary, and more are needed. Select legislatures are wondering whether allowing public entities to compete or link up with private providers is a promising way forward. Arkansas, for example, already has in place ARE-ON, a publicly built fiber optic network for its public colleges, universities, and hospitals. And though political appetite for such a move seems to be tottering, Arkansas governor Mike Beebe is arguing for preK–12 public schools to be granted the right to access this existing network.24 Other leaders, such as Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, are forging corporate partner- ships and advocating for greater transparency to facilitate more sensible rates from service providers.25 Still other more under- resourced districts are taking advantage of President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, which has negotiated Internet discounts from companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon to help schools connect.26

Leading the Way

Infrastructure, political will, and afford- ability aside, the human element of this work is king. In particular, the efforts of school boards, superintendents, and principals to drive awareness, impart vision, manage change, and build capacity among teachers, students, and parents for full web access are unparalleled in importance. Thankfully, decision makers can benefit greatly from the work of experienced professionals who have pioneered both Internet safety and instructional best practice in our nation’s schools.

One such story comes from the Mooresville Graded School District (MGSD) of North Carolina, where all public school students in grades three through twelve have Internet access for the entire school day via laptops they can take home with them after school. Over lemonade and cookies at the local civic center, before the first student laptop was ever issued, MGSD superintendent Dr. Mark Edwards met with technology CEOs, national directors of education technology nonprofits, leaders from the community, and almost one thousand parents to discuss a digital conversion master plan for the district that would gradually eliminate textbooks from the classroom and position students for deep learning via one-to-one computing and safe, high-speed Internet access.27

Edwards, named the Superintendent of the Year in 2013 by the American Association of School Administrators, is a futurist who has the proven procedural and political savvy needed to renovate his district’s approach.28 Edwards welcomed engineers from Cisco and Apple to Mooresville to do an analysis on the infrastructure before moving ahead.29 To simultaneously ramp up school and at-home web access, the local Internet provider that serviced the district stepped up and offered high-speed broadband for a fee of twenty dollars per year to families of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, who are presently half of the MGSD student population.30

In conversation, Edwards plays down the technical infrastructure, which he suggests is becoming increasingly straightforward, and instead emphasizes the human infrastructure, with safety as a top priority. Before any student is issued a laptop, parents have to go through training with their child on Internet safety. Starting in kindergarten, MGSD students explore “digital citizenship” and consider how their digital footprint will evolve as they mature. Teachers use remote desktops to see students’ screens during class. Network engineers, who work out of resource offices at every school in the district, program the system to alert them when issues are suspected. The district’s biggest problem is students visiting games sites, Edwards suggests, which he calls a discipline- related rather than an Internet-related dilemma. Edwards says he knows the Internet filter functions well because MGSD parents and students, his son included, complain about the filter being too strong and limiting access.31

Widespread Internet use has transformed teaching and learning in the district, which has enjoyed pervasive academic achievement gains since the conversion.32 At present, MGSD is tied for third place in North Carolina in overall academic achievement. The district grabbed the top spot in North Carolina for meeting the state’s Annual Measurable Objectives. MGSD third graders ranked number one in the state on reading and math assessments, Edwards mentions—a full ten points ahead of Chapel Hill.33

Having already welcomed visitors from forty-five US states to learn from its approach, MGSD is now fielding interest from education leaders in Singapore, Brazil, Germany, France, and Canada. For the 2015–2016 school year, MGSD students in grades two through twelve will have MacBooks, while kindergarteners and first graders will have iPad Airs.

Of course, not all of MGSD’s success is due solely to technology, and there is bound to be room for improvement in the way its program is implemented. Though technology is not a panacea, it is a valuable tool for getting results and adding value.

Right now, we should help mobilize funding, infrastructure, security, training, and support toward full broadband access for all students in the United States, so that from the earliest grades, they can practice finding, analyzing, and evaluating information from the Internet; effectively use this information to solve problems; and ultimately grow to be the solution seekers, innovators, and collaborators we hope to graduate.

To do so, schools, districts, and states need bold, visionary leaders who, in spite of nascent research and competing priorities, see through the woods and beyond the mountains to tomorrow’s reality, have the agility and courage to cultivate social will for improvement, and make difficult fiscal decisions to advance this work as quickly as possible.

Tyler S. Thigpen is the former head of the upper school at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, a cofounder of Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in southwest Atlanta, and a former Spanish teacher in the Gwinnett County, Georgia, public schools. Tyler holds a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (2011) and is currently a first-year Doctor of Education Leadership candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Photo Credit: Lexie Flickinger


Endnotes

1  Marshall Chambers, conversation with the author, January 2015.

2  Ibid.; “High-Speed Video-Conferencing Brings Georgia Tech Experts Directly into K–12 Classrooms,” Georgia Tech

Institute for People and Technology, accessed 14 December 2014.

3  Janna Anderson, “Digital Life in 2025,” Pew Research Center, 11 March 2014, 6.

4  “2013–2014 ERC Policies & Benefits Survey,” Employers Resource Council, March 2013; “K–12 Connectivity,” Education Superhighway, accessed 14 December 2014.

5 Donald J. Leu et al., “The New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension: Rethinking the Reading Achievement Gap,” Reading Research Quarterly, 2014.

6 Linda Darling-Hammond et al., “Using Technology to Support At-Risk Students’ Learning,” Alliance for Excellent Education and Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, September 2014; “Early Progress: Interim Research on Personalized Learning,” Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, November 2014.

7  Sugata Mitra, “Kids Can Teach Themselves,” TED, February 2007.

8  James M. Marshall, “Learning with Technology: Evidence that Technology Can, and Does, Support Learning,” San Diego State University, May 2002.

9 Darling-Hammond, “Using Technology”; “Early Progress”; Julie M. Lokie, “Examining Student Achievement and Motivation Using Internet-Based Inquiry in the Classroom,” University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1 May 2011.

10 Darling-Hammond, “Using Technology”; Douglas Grimes and Mark Warschauer, “Learning with Laptops: A

Multi-Method Case Study,” Journal of Educational Computing Research Vol. 38, No. 3 (2008): 305–332.
11 Paul Hitlin and Lee Rainie, “Teens, Technology, and School,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, August 2005, 3.
12 Mona Mourshed, Diana Farrell, and Dominic Barton, “Education to Employment: Designing a System that Works,” McKinsey Center for Government, 2012.
13 “FCC Continues E-Rate Reboot to Meet the Needs of 21st Century Digital Learning,” Federal Communications Commission, 11 December 2014; Angele A. Gilroy, “Telecommunications Discounts for Schools and Libraries: The ‘E- Rate’ Program and Controversies,” Congressional Research Service, 27 June 2003.

14  “FCC Continues E-Rate Reboot,” 2.

15  Ibid.

16  Evan Marwell, conversation with the author, December 2014.

17  Ibid.

18  Ibid.

19  Christine Fox et al., “The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K–12 Education Infrastructure Needs,” State Educational Technology Directors Association, 2012, 2.

20  Scott Neuman, “LA Schools Superintendent Steps Down, Defends Tenure,” NPR, 17 October 2014.

21  Tom Wheeler, “The Facts and Future of Broadband Competition,” Federal Communications Commission, 4 September 2014, 1.

22  Michele Molnar, “The Winners, and Losers, in E-Rate Modernization,” Education Week, 24 July 2014.

23  “Summary of the E-Rate Modernization Order,” Federal Communications Commission.

24  Benjamin Hardy, “The Internet Gap in Arkansas Education,” Arkansas Times, 25 December 2014.

25  Office of the Governor, “Governor McAuliffe Announces Selection of Virginia for School Broadband Pricing Project,” The Commonwealth of Virginia, 3 June 2014.

26 “FCC to Spend $3.9 Billion to Expand Internet Access to Schools in Rural and Poor Areas,” The Washington Post, 11 December 2014; “The ConnectED Initiative,” The White House, accessed 14 December 2014.

27  Mark Edwards, conversation with the author, January 2015.

28  “Mark A. Edwards Named AASA 2013 Superintendent of the Year,” American Association of School Administrators, 21 February 2013.

29 Edwards, conversation with the author.

30 Ibid.; Jessica Osborne, “Hundreds in Mooresville Will Receive Free High-Speed Internet,” Mooresville Tribune, 16 October 2013.

31  Edwards, conversation with the author.

32  Alan Schwarz, “Mooresville’s Shining Example (It’s Not Just About the Laptops),” The New York Times, 12 February 2012; Michele Molnar, “Educators Study Digital Conversion in Mooresville, N.C.,” Education Week, 24 July 2013; “2013–2014 School Report Cards,” Public Schools of North Carolina, 2014.

33 Edwards, conversation with the author.