​Education leaders call for new broadband targets

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Education technology leaders released a new set of recommendations Thursday aimed at making high-speed broadband access universally available in and beyond the classroom for America’s students.

“As leaders, we have opportunities to close the digital divide,” said Tracy Weeks, executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association, a leading trade group representing state education technology officials. “The bar has moved and the time is now,” she said, highlighting a series of new recommendations from the association to improve K-12 infrastructure for learning in the digital age.

Speaking at a forum on Capitol Hill, Weeks was joined by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Education Department technology director Joseph South, Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and state and local ed tech leaders in calling for continued efforts to close the so-called “homework gap.”

Rosenworcel put the gap into perspective, saying: “Seven in ten teachers assign homework that requires internet access,” yet among “29 million households with school age children, 5 million do not have broadband subscriptions.”

“It’s not just about them,” she added. “It’s also about the future. We are shortchanging these students and the economy if we don’t close this digital divide. We can’t stop now. We need to do more. And I think that ‘more’ will take place at the state and local level.”

The new recommendations from SETDA call on education leaders, federal, state and local policy makers and broadband providers to push for detailed infrastructure improvements to ensure students have broadband access in and out of schools.

The recommendations include specific targets for small, medium and large school districts to increase broadband service speeds and wide area network capacity.

SETDA, for instance, recommends that for the 2017-18 school year, districts should shoot to deliver broadband speeds approaching 1.0 Gigabits per second (Gbps) per 1,000 students and upwards of 3.0 Gbps per 1,000 students by the 2020-21 school year.

The recommendations are contained in a new report, The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning, which adds to work SETDA released in April, according to Christine Fox, deputy executive director at SETDA who co-authored the report.

“The really valuable upgrade in this paper,” said New Jersey Office of Education Technology Director, and SETDA member, Laurence Cocco, “is it takes large districts into account as well as small districts of under 1,000 students — so giving recommendations that reflects different size districts is valuable.”

The report also calls on state leaders to support districts in designing infrastructure that supports digital learning in school, at home and across the community. Currently, one-third of states do not have any direct state funding for broadband either on or off campus, the report noted, and it urged states to provide direct state funding, or match E-rate funding, for broadband services.

SETDA also suggested states need to do more to create or expand coordinated broadband networks for economies of scale, similar to initiatives like the Utah Education Network, which oversees the development of a statewide gigabit network for K-12 schools and the state’s colleges.

The organization, which dates back to the days when the state relied on microwave towers to reach far-flung communities, works with ISP providers on behalf of the state to drive more robust broadband services. That’s led to lower operating costs, faster service upgrades, and improved academic performance, according to UEN Associate Director Jeff Egly, who spoke during the forum.

More decentralized states like New Jersey, home to more than 600 independent school districts, have also shown how the power of collective purchasing programs can yield huge savings for schools. According to Cocco, a group of 200 schools that joined forces in a collective broadband buy saw their monthly internet prices drop by 74 percent.

But as importantly, the schools also reported that attendance rose by 7 percent in a single year, and saw a significant improvement in learning proficiency measures.

But the over-arching reason states need to move faster to close broadband gaps stems from the rapid transition schools are undergoing toward project-based, digital learning tools.

“Gone is the era when students are given a text book for required learning,” said SETDA’s Weeks, noting that seven states have mandates for schools to use digital materials in the next 5 years, making access outside the school to the internet essential.

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