Jul 08 2021

Why Connectivity Is Key to Inclusive Technology Options for Students

The pandemic has shown districts must continue to ensure reliable community internet access for students to participate meaningfully in their education.

Technology’s role during the pandemic was critical and apparent. From its wide adoption and use, many students discovered a more inclusive learning environment. Schools and communities that previously couldn’t afford to acquire devices and internet access received grants and other financial aid to do so.

This is not to say that the digital divide has ceased to be a problem. Many communities are still working toward their acquisition of devices and internet access. Beyond that, many areas that have internet don’t have networks that are reliable or capable of supporting the necessary number of devices trying to connect.

As K–12 schools shift back to in-person learning this fall, it’s important that they don’t lose sight of the many advancements the pandemic brought in the way of inclusive learning, or the many challenges that still need to be overcome. Technology is key to continuing this learning for all.

Educational Technology Relies on Connectivity

One inequity the pandemic highlighted has been internet access. Internet connectivity during distance and hybrid learning has been crucial to the success of these models. If students can’t access their classes, teachers or assignments online, it puts them at a steep disadvantage.

While the FCC estimated in 2020 that 14.5 million Americans do not have broadband access, a recent study indicates that the actual number may be closer to 42 million.

In either case, the numbers show that access to reliable internet continues to be a problem, one that has presented many challenges to online education.

“One of the biggest challenges facing education right now is the digital divide, which is leaving many students without access to broadband connectivity,” says Renee Patton, global director of education and healthcare at Cisco. “The pandemic shined a bright light on the lack of access students have to learning resources from home.”

Renee Patton, Cisco
One of the biggest challenges facing education right now is the digital divide, which is leaving many students without access to broadband connectivity.”

Renee Patton Global Director of Education and Healthcare, Cisco

One District Brings Connectivity to the Community

Data from the FCC and market research firm BroadbandNow indicate that rural areas face more significant connectivity challenges. This was true in the case of Canutillo Independent School District, a rural district located near El Paso, Texas, where 70 percent of students lacked internet at home.

While many districts were putting Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots to achieve connectivity, Canutillo ISD found safety issues with this solution. The weather, most notably the heat, posed the most danger to students who would need to sit in their vehicles all day to attend class.

Instead, Canutillo ISD’s Executive Director of Technology Oscar Rico worked with Cisco to create Canutillo Connects, an initiative aimed at providing internet access to the community using Cisco’s ultrareliable wireless backhaul.

DIVE DEEPER: Learn more about Canutillo ISD’s initiative to connect the community.

The company’s wireless mesh technology “brings secure broadband connectivity to sites and environments that are currently challenging to connect,” Patton explained. “For example, a school could extend their high-speed optical building network connection to a large radius around the school, using mesh technology.”

The Importance of Internet Access for the Future of Education

Lack of access to the internet will continue to be a problem in communities when students return to the classroom. Schools that haven’t found solutions should continue looking into options that enable reliable connectivity in every home. In some instances, this may require districts to work with their state government.

MORE ON EDTECH: K–12 leaders can work with local governments to address the digital divide.

There are also a multitude of funding options available to K–12 schools as a result of the pandemic, including ESSER funding through the CARES Act, E-rate funding and the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund, among others.

“Whether students go fully back to the classroom, learn from a distance or engage in some form of hybrid learning, they will still need access to the internet from home,” Patton said. “This access avails them of course content, homework resources, the ability to watch and rewatch lectures online, connect with virtual tutors and obtain online support services, which are critically needed today.”

Despite many children returning to classrooms, virtual schooling is an increasingly popular option. “Some students and faculty members may have to continue teaching and learning from a distance, and it’s important that they not be excluded from this recovery,” Patton added.

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