Weak Internet Infrastructure Threatens Technology Benefits

Many schools eager to implement technology are realizing they lack the necessary broadband speed to perform even simple functions as they embrace instruction via iPads, laptops and other technologies. As more teachers pull lesson plans off the Internet and use bandwidth-hungry programming such as video streaming and Skype, classroom instruction is being stifled by slow speeds.

According to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that tests school broadband speeds and works to upgrade Internet access, an estimated 72% of public schools have connections that are too slow to take full advantage of digital learning. In addition, according to the Obama administration, the average school has about the same speed as the average American home — while serving 200 times as many users. Upgrading wiring, expanding Wi-Fi capabilities or simply spending more money to purchase faster service is involved in expanding high-speed Internet in schools.

As if that is not enough, 45 states and the District of Columbia adopted the new Common Core math and reading standards and most will take the new online assessments in the 2014-15 school year. Evaluating teachers, making student promotion as well as graduation decisions and rate schools will require the test results.

"Just as people are getting excited about the power of what the Internet offers to students and teachers, they are running into the buzz saw of infrastructure," said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway.

As Stephanie Banchero of The Wall Street Journal reports, thanks in part to a federal program known as E-rate, which provides about $2.3 billion annually to connect schools and libraries to the Web, virtually every school in America has some Internet access. A monthly fee on phone service of about $2.90 per household or user funds the program overseen by the Federal Communications Commission. Additionally, millions have been set aside by some states for schools to upgrade technology, while in other states, voters in some districts are approving special tax increases to pay for better infrastructure and tech.

Expanding high-speed Internet has been made a top priority by President Barack Obama as he launched an initiative last summer, dubbed ConnectED, that aims to bring it to virtually every school in five years and to train teachers how to use technology. While hinting that a fee increase might be needed, the administration wants the FCC to modernize the E-rate program.

Many countries, including Latvia and South Korea, have better Internet connectivity than the U.S. does, putting American students at a disadvantage according to the director of the office of educational technology at the Education Department Richard Culatta.

"If we don't put significant national focus on the problem, it will simply perpetuate," he said.

However, there has been pushback, including from some congressional Republicans who don't want fees raised on consumers. Others say the federal program is antiquated and needs to revamp how it gives out money. Before a fee increase, the FCC should "determine whether the current money is being spent wisely and whether it is achieving its purposes, which should be to further academic achievement," according to Randolph May, the president of the Free State Foundation, a think tank that advocates for lighter telecom regulation.

In states including Kentucky, Oklahoma and Indiana, slow connections have hampered online assessments and many educators fear their district won't be ready when Common Core exams come online.

01 9, 2014
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