Officials at January Broadband Breakfast Club Tackle Mix of Technology and Learning

Broadband Calendar, Broadband TV, Broadband's Impact, National Broadband Plan January 13th, 2010

, Deputy Editor, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2010 – Representatives from the federal government, educational organizations, trade associations, and school districts came together to discuss the state of broadband in our educational system and what can be expected from the national broadband plan under development by the Federal Communications Commission.

The session, the January Broadband Breakfast Club, commenced with a presentation by Steve Midgley, Director of Education at the Federal Communications Commission. Midgley began with a brief background (PPT) of the national broadband plan mandate and the national purposes behind it.

He said that he believed that aside from the necessary deployment and adoption data that will be included in the plan, the success of the plan hinges on the agency’s answer to this specific question of Congress: “why are we building this network?”

To address this question, Midgley paired the priorities of the Department of Education with the four core strategies of the broadband plan’s education component.

The Education Department’s plan is to transform education by:

  • improving standards and assessments,
  • developing advanced data systems,
  • fostering support for effective teachers, and
  • turning around the lowest performing schools.

Midgley paired these priorities to the FCC’s strategies of:

  • promoting and developing online learning,
  • digital content such as e-textbooks,
  • data standards and interoperability (including standardized education records), and
  • broadband infrastructure, including ways to drive more bandwidth to more schools where it is most needed.

Asked by an audience member about coordination between the national broadband plan and the National Educational Technology Plan, Midgley answered that “they interact as much as legally possible considering the FCC is not an executive branch agency.” Midgley admitted, “it is up to the FCC to decide what they present to Congress.”

He said that there will probably be some specific recommendations on changes to the E-Rate program for subsidizing connections to schools and libraries, which would likely lead to a notice of proposed regulatory changes.

Data presented by Midgley expressed the cost of digital exclusion, and of how classroom usage is driving the need for improved connectivity.

Key questions that need to be answered deal with the method of content delivery. Does hybrid learning alongside broadband in the classroom yield better results than distance learning, or should the two delivery platforms be used to deliver different forms of content? Midgley ended his presentation by posing these questions to the rest of the panelists.

The panel, moderated by Drew Clark, editor of BroadbandBreakfast.com, and executive director of BroadbandCensus.com, included: Greg Barlow, chief information officer for Anne Arundel Country Public School; Frank Gallagher, senior director of Cable in the Classroom; Matthew Ohlson, instructional leader of the Florida Virtual School and Wendy Wigen, government relations officer at EDUCAUSE.

In his first question Clark asked the panelists about the role that E-Rate has played since the 1990s. Specifically, how can E-Rate help when supposedly 100 percent of the schools are now already connected to broadband. He also asked for the perspective of higher education institutions and universities that have championed broadband.

Barlow began the discussion by admitting that while E-Rate has been very helpful in connecting schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, “in Baltimore and DC many schools still only have T1 connections…that is 27,000 computers fighting over a lot of space.” T1 connections are no longer as special as they once seemed. Additionally, he said, “25 students with one machine per classroom is no good.”

Barlow’s goal is to get a 1-1 ratio of computers and children. He said, “fortunately about 90 percent have internet connections at home” – but he admited that the children from the poor backgrounds tend to fall behind.

Gallagher expects that within five to seven years, schools will need 1 Gigabit per second (1 Gbps) of capacity per every 1000 students to support the growth of online learning.

He agreed with Barlow that there is an extreme disadvantage to children without broadband connections in the home. He listed the main barriers of adoption to the home as education barriers, worries about internet safety, affordability and simple lack of access to broadband in certain rural areas. As a potential solution he pointed to the cable industry’s proposed “Adoption Plus” program, where cable internet service providers provide computers to homes of children that qualified for subsidized lunches.

Ohlson’s Virtual School is a public school in Florida that reaches 124,000 students globally. Students either take courses from their traditional brick and mortar schools, or are home schooled, or are from military families and need greater flexibility.

“The statute creating E-Rate requires that the discount be provided on services used for ‘educational purposes,’ yet the way the program has been constructed is to provide discounts only to school buildings that serve students,” explained Ohlson. Since there is no actual brick-and-mortar school building, there is almost no support for his school.

“So while the telecommunications and ISP costs to support the Virtual School were more than $53 million in the 2008-2009 school year, the E-Rate reimbursement was only $5,237, [or] 0.01 percent of the total telecommunications costs incurred by students teachers, and the school.”

Higher education is a different story, said Wigen.

Community colleges, vocational schools as well as all leading research schools are all connected with technology. Of all EDUCAUSE members, about two hundred lead the way in research while the other several thousand struggle with access to education resources and remote access for their students.

The lack of resources at certain schools makes is essential for students to be able participate in distance learning, similarly for vocational and job training classes, the required simulations cannot be done on a dial up connection.

In response to a question on FCC support for distance learning, Midgley said that “we cannot design educational systems for yesterday.” Technologies for schools need to start looking towards other industries and observing the trends of decentralization and more telecommuting.

Barlow brought the discussion back to his idea of supplementing communications capabilities. While Barlow wants to see more focus on increasing technologies in classroom through handhelds and mobile devices, he does not want to see the technologies replace traditional classroom learning.

One audience member continued on the mobile use topic by pointing out the higher-than-average level of use of mobile devices by black and Hispanic youth. This audience member also noted that the average age of students using mobile devices is dropping. “How can we integrate children bringing technology into our schools?”

“Since technology funding is a huge issue…if a student is coming into a school with a cell phone, then lets leverage the parent’s investment to help our own technology needs,” Barlow answers.

He continued by mentioning that there is now technology to re-route packets through school networks in order to filter content. As for the platform for such a device, one panelists mentioned the benefits of applications such as iTunes University. Midgley then chimed in to say that there are laws surrounding filtering but each situation must be examined separately

Another audience member asked about the issues with real life versus online life in a learning context. Gallagher said that working with teachers and by providing professional development tools like Blackboard, we can “provide barriers to guiding kids in appropriate behavior online and offline.”

Wendy Wigen added that we need to stress hybrid learning as the most effective method of teaching. A lot more goes on in the schools that complement the actual learning. When asked about the broadband needs for hybrid learning, she said, “we need sufficient networks and devices, bandwidth and connections to participate in these technologies.”

One audience member asked about how rural schools can be balanced in the equation between funding and resources for broadband. Ohlson mentioned that “in Florida, rural areas where broadband is not an option, many students use cell phones to access learning resources…many students are going to libraries.” Ohlson reiterated the need to see E-Rate options and discounts for these students as well as studies to find out where the students are actually doing most of their learning.

The discussion ended with a question on the topic of speed and the need for the FCC to set a high definition of broadband speeds so that the rural school won’t be left behind.

Midgley said that the FCC’s broadband plan should should include the definition of broadband. “The broadband definition for the home is not suitable for speed definitions at a school. School broadband definitions should depend on meaningful use.” He finished by saying “as we define broadband, we need to say who is doing what with the connections they have.”

Editor’s Note: Video from the event will be available in a few days at http://broadbandbreakfast.com/category/broadband-tv, or click on “Broadband TV” above. To register for the February 9 Broadband Breakfast Club, click here.

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