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A Mix of Resources and Technologies Are Needed to Close the Homework Gap

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Screenshot of Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel from the webinar

June 26, 2020 — Maintaining learning initiatives as the COVID-19 pandemic forced a hasty transition to virtual education was a challenging adjustment for schools, teachers, and students across the country.

Even schools that were considered relatively well-connected, with a device to student ratio of one-to-one, had to strategize about how to keep kids who lacked home broadband access connected.

The task was even harder for communities where sufficient education technology resources have historically not been available.

Panelists at a Thursday webinar hosted by New America discussed the steps different entities can take to connect all students to online learning resources, noting that action is required from the state, municipalities and the private sector.

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission play an important role in increasing the accessibility of funding for broadband and devices for students at home.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been fighting to close the digital divide for years, joined the webinar to discuss possible federal efforts to address the homework gap.

In March, New America called for the agency to increase the flexibility of the application of E-rate funding.

Schools and libraries have depended on the FCC’s E-rate Program since 1996 to help eligible areas obtain affordable telecommunications and internet access.

While the program has been effective in keeping schools and libraries connected, its efforts became seemingly useless when students were sent home.

While Rosenworcel noted that she is only one of five commissioners, she pledged to use her influence to fight for increasing the flexibility of the E-rate program, making funding more available for devices and internet services to help connect students at home.

“Let’s figure out how to use the tools on the books to help schools,” said Rosenworcel. “It’s essential that we take this program and make it meet this moment.”

In the fight to connect underserved areas, she added, “every option needs to be on the table.”

Other panelists championed ideas of continued learning, technology and universal access

The panelists championed the idea that the continuity of learning requires technology and that any available connectivity option should not be turned away in the pursuit toward universal access.

While expanding the E-rate program is an essential step to expanding internet access, there are further steps that can be taken at the municipal or school district level.

Some school districts have been extremely creative in their approach to closing the homework gap affecting their communities.

David Fringer, chief technology officer of the Council Bluffs school district, detailed the steps his community has been taking to connect low income students for the past eight years by pioneering the use of community broadband networks.

In 2012, the Nebraska school district, which receives an E-rate discount of 90 percent, set off on the pursuit of achieving a one-to-one student to device ratio.

“Every student needs a device — depending on their interests, they may need different devices,” said Fringer.

The school quickly realized that while providing every student with a device is a crucial step in closing the digital divide, the devices have no use if students lack internet service at home, and the homework gap persists.

With that, the school district sprang into action working on the BLink Initiative, an initiative to offer free public Wi-Fi in high poverty areas across the city.

The city utilizes a mix of non-profit, federal and private funding to secure enough money to complete one phase of the project each year.

Each yearly phase builds an additional square mile of the Wi-Fi network. The city is now six phases in.

Fringer said that recent changes to the E-rate program have been fantastic, noting that changes to Category 2 requirements have allowed the district to build robust networks inside of their schools.

Panelists championed the idea that continuing to alter the E-rate program to fit people’s pressing needs may be the answer to closing the homework gap.

At any rate, “we have to find a way to get everyone connected,” said Rosenworcel.

Contributing Reporter Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide and has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband.

Education

Metaverse Can Serve as a Supplement, Not Replacement, For Educators: Experts

The virtual world where avatars can meet as if they were in real life can be a companion for education.

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Screenshot of the Brookings event Tuesday

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2022 – Experts said at a Brookings Institution event said Tuesday that while the “metaverse” can go a long way toward improving education for some students, it should serve as a supplement to those educational goals.

The metaverse refers to a platform of 3D virtual worlds where avatars, or virtual characters, meet as if they were in the real world. The concept has been toyed with by Facebook parent Meta and is being used as a test for the educational space.

“The metaverse is a world that is accessible to students and teachers across the globe that allows shared interactions without boundaries in a respectful optimistic way,” Simran Mulchandani, founder of education app Project Rangeet, said at Tuesday’s event.

Panelists stated that as the metaverse and education meet, researchers, educators, policymakers and digital designers should take the lead, so tech platforms do not dictate educational opportunities.

“We have to build classrooms first, not tech first,” said Mulchandani.

Rebecca Kantar, the head of education at Roblox – a video game platform that allows players to program games – added that as the metaverse is still emerging and being constructed, “we can be humble in our attempt to find the highest and best way to bring the metaverse” into the classroom for the best education for the future.

Anant Agarwal, a professor at MIT and chief open education officer for online learning platform edX, stated the technology of the metaverse has the potential to make “quality and deep education accessible to everybody everywhere.”

Not a replacement for real social experiences

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, senior fellow of the global economy and development at the Center for Universal Education, said that while the metaverse brings potential to improve learning, it is not a complete replacement for the social experience a student has in the classroom.

“The metaverse can’t substitute for social interaction. It can supplement.”

Mulchandani noted the technology of the metaverse cannot replace the teacher, but rather can serve to solve challenges in the classroom.

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Education

Fiber Broadband Companies and Consultants Tout Their Work for Social Good

Fiber providers, equipment companies and consultants discussed their work in communities in a session at Fiber Connect

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Photo of Ritchie Sorrells of GVTC Communications, Hu Meena of C Spire, Ji Soo Song of Education Department's Office of Educational Technology and Keven Morgan of Clearfield by Drew Clark (left to right).

June 16, 2022 – Leading fiber broadband platforms are hoping to positively impact future generations beyond fiber deployment through education programs for youth, scholarship awards, and traditional community service events, said panelists at Fiber Connect event Tuesday.

The panel discussion, according to promotional material for the panel in advance of the session at the conference, “represented a new level of commitment based on the belief that operators have a responsibility to make the communities they serve even better.” The showcase panel was a way for the Fiber Broadband Association to highlight the work of providers, equipment vendors, consultants and government officials.

Companies are particularly focused on how to influence following generations for good. C-Spire is working with schools in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education, and it provides programs for youth to learn coding and participate in coding challenges hosted by C-Spire.

Working with the state of Mississippi, fiber provider C-Spire made computer science education available to all K-12 students in the state and donated $1 million for teacher training. C-Spire also provided more than $3 million in scholarships for higher education.

GVTC Communications, a consultant to the telecom industry, works with local nonprofits, churches, schools, and businesses to donate full thanksgiving meals to families in need every year since 2012.

Listening to the needs of the community is essential to make an impact, agreed the panel. “When you have listening as your core value, you find out things that you can really make a difference in,” said Kevin Morgan, chief marketing officer at Clearfield, a provider of equipment for fiber builds.

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Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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