May 30 2012

A New Digital Divide?

Rise in multimedia and mobile devices highlights a growing shortage of broadband capacity in homes and schools.

For years, schools in rural and urban areas — largely with minority populations — lamented the digital divide as an impasse that prevented the nation’s most disadvantaged students from reaping the educational rewards of the wired generation. Then came the federal E-Rate program, which, since 1998, has pumped more than $2.25 billion a year into schools for telecommunications services, including Internet access.

In 2005, it was reported that 100 percent of U.S. schools had achieved connectivity.

Now, nearly eight years later, a report from advocates at the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) says another, potentially more stubborn, technological disparity is emerging.

As educators embrace the use of multimedia, mobile computing devices and other technology-rich resources in lieu of traditional classroom texts, what was once a struggle for Internet access has turned into a scramble for network capacity — specifically, broadband capacity, which provides the connection speeds required for true multimedia-rich classroom learning.

In its report, “The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K-12 Education Infrastructure Needs,” SETDA says a 2010 Federal Communications Commission survey of schools receiving E-Rate funds showed that while most had some form of broadband access, 80 percent said their current broadband levels fall short of educational needs. Outside of school, the report showed, just 65 percent of homes have broadband access.

“Most K‑12 districts in the nation now provide their students and teachers with some level of Internet access, but too often the speeds of those connections fall short of what’s appropriate for learning in a time where technology pervades all aspects of society,” the report said.

There was a time, according to the report, when the term “high-speed Internet access” referred to any connection faster than a 56 Kbps dial-up service. At that speed, SETDA projects that downloading a 3-minute pop song as an MP3 file to your desktop would take upwards of 15 minutes — not exactly practical for a 45-minute class.

With the rise in e-book readers and other mobile devices, SETDA suggests that schools will need external Internet connections to their Internet service provider at rates of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2014–15 and of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2017–18.

 “Addressing teacher and student concerns regarding educational broadband reliability and speed is as critical as ensuring plumbing and electricity in schools,” said Douglas Levin, SETDA’s executive director, in a statement about the report. “Limited access to broadband must not become the stumbling block to helping all students make the most of their talents and abilities.”

In addition to addressing broadband connectivity, the organization offers three recommendations to improve K‑12 Internet infrastructure:

  • Ensure universal broadband access. Thanks to the widespread adoption of mobile devices, experts say, the benefits of online learning are no longer limited to the confines of the classroom. In order for all students to reap the rewards of a technology-rich curriculum, SETDA says the federal government, states, and local districts must take steps to extend universal broadband access to homes, libraries and community centers.
  • Build state leadership. The organization also recommends that all states provide direct leadership by way of initiatives to expand and extend broadband capacity. This could include the implementation of cost-effective statewide broadband networks and partnerships with schools and districts “in support of state broadband needs.”
  • Advocate for federal funding. According to the report, the United States currently ranks 15th among industrialized nations in high-speed Internet access. In order to achieve universal broadband access at rates seen in homes and schools in Taiwan, France, South Korea and Sweden, SETDA says the federal government must explore public programs that increase access at more affordable prices and expand coverage beyond private consumers to the broader community.  

You can read the full report here. What do you think of SETDA’s recommendations? Is a lack of broadband access at your school creating the appearance of a new digital divide?

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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