Technology is changing the way students are taught and tested as more school districts across the country are using interactive digital learning systems in the classrooms and replacing traditional textbooks with digital curriculum — but too few American schools do not have a fast and reliable internet connection to support the digital shift.
Two world-renowned technology gurus — Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg — have joined in an effort to provide a high-speed internet connection to every school in the United States. Facebook creator Zuckerberg's Startup: Education and Microsoft Corp. Co-Founder Gates' foundation have contributed a combined $9 million to the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit working to improve connectivity in schools, The Associated Press reports.
"It's the backbone. We have to actually think not just about the sustainability of the current traffic, we're talking about exploding traffic," said Raj Adusumilli, assistant superintendent for information services in the Arlington Public Schools in northern Virginia.
The money will be used to provide technical expertise to schools and use competition to help drive costs down. It likely would cost billions to get high-speed Internet access to every school in America.
"When schools and teachers have access to reliable Internet connections, students can discover new skills and ideas beyond the classroom," Zuckerberg said in a statement.
Previously, President Barack Obama set a goal of having 99% of students connected to high-speed internet connections within five years. Also, the Federal Communications Commission is weighing changes to a program to increase connectivity in schools.
Today about 80% of schools have internet capabilities that are too slow or isolated to places like front offices and computer labs, said Richard Culatta, director of education technology at the Education Department. Many schools have the same amount of connectivity as an average home. That means several hundred kids or more operate on an Internet connection similar to that used in a house by four family members. That leads to networks that are slow and prone to crashing.
For schools in rural areas, cost is a big factor in getting access to lines that would bring broadband into schools. To buy the equipment and install Wi-Fi costs an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 per school and to run fiberoptics into the school can cost tens of thousands more per mile, according to Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway.
Additionally, a lack of competition for broadband access helps drive up costs at Chautauqua County Unified Schools, a district with about 360 students in an agriculture and oil community in rural Kansas. About three-quarters of students in the district qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Nancy Pinard, the district's technology director, said the district relies on distance learning to teach Spanish, physics and calculus and has issued an iPad to all students in upper grades. Its broadband bill would be about $9,000 a month without a special Federal Communications Commission program that reduces it to $2,000 to $3,000 a month.
Doug Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, said that the drive for increased broadband capabilities has been fueled in part by a drop in the price of tablets and their rising popularity. More apps and other educational software are available and states and districts have loosened rules to allow textbook dollars to be spent on digital learning, he said.
Another factor is preparation for tests connected to Common Core academic standards rolling out in most of the country. The shift to computer-based tests requires more bandwidth than many districts have.