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Internet Access, Affordability Issues Creating Educational Disparities, Federal Reserve Panelist Say

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot taken from San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank event

March 24, 2021 – The lack of available and quality broadband access is worsening the disparity between low- and high-income demographics, educators say.

A panel, hosted by the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank and discussing the “new future of work” on Monday, said those who are in an “elite” category are getting ahead on education because they benefit from good quality internet. Poorer households, who don’t have good quality internet – either due to where they live or how much it costs – are getting left behind, they said.

The pandemic has forced schools to close, stressing broadband access at home for remote learning. While lawmakers and parents want kids back in school, some educators say students should be able to choose between in-person and virtual learning.

Salman Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy, a nonprofit education organization, said he believes the country has done a good job in the last 10 years in closing the digital divide. However, the pandemic has virtually undone that progress as many schools remain shuttered. Internet access is inequitable and has turned into an economics issue, not just an educational problem, he noted.

Khan said people need opportunities and incentives to learn at their own pace and to not be sorted wrongfully in the education system.

Not everyone is given those opportunities. Astrid Tuminez, president of the Utah Valley University, was born in a farming village in the Philippine province of Iloilo, and grew up in a hut with bamboo walls.

Her desire for education led her to the United States where she later became educated at Harvard and MIT and joined the corporate ranks of Microsoft before becoming UVU’s first female President.

Tuminez said UVU is an open admission, dual-mission institution, which means it has a community college embedded in a teaching university. She said that UVU’s faculty also needs to have the right training and resources to help close the digital divide, and has since seen 40 percent of the faculty certified to teach online.

With dual-mission purposed institutions like UVU, more support can be given to more students than if it were an elite institution. She said 37 percent of the school’s enrollment is first generation college students. “We don’t care about your past and we see you as you are and we want to support you,” said Tuminez.

Learning opportunities need to be abundant and accessible, she said. Khan said people must be given as much support as possible to learn and stay current on their skills to be competitive.

Peter Blair, who is on the faculty in the graduate school of education at Harvard University, where he co-directs the Project on Workforce, said “similar to Astrid,” he too grew up in a small island nation, the Bahamas, and was able to be educated at private universities and has since taught at public universities.

Blair said lifelong learning is important, and that “we need to meet folks where they are,” meaning educational institutions need to support and see through to the success of students.

Blair said that fewer than 40 percent of workers have college degrees, yet more than two-thirds of new jobs created in America require college degrees—a confusing finding as it is not obvious in many cases why a college degree is required for jobs that shouldn’t require a degree.

Born in China and adopted to American Fork, Utah, Reporter Derek Shumway graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor's degree in political science and a minor in international strategy and diplomacy. At college, he started an LED lightbulb company.

Education

Libraries Must Be Vigilant To Ensure Adequate Broadband, Consultants Say

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Stephanie Stenberg via Internet2

April 7, 2021 – Libraries should monitor their broadband speeds and ensure they are getting quality connections, according to library consultants.

Carson Block from Carson Block Consulting and Stephanie Stenberg of the Internet2 Community Anchor program told a virtual conference hosted by the American Library Association on Tuesday that it’s time libraries take a closer look at how they are getting broadband and if they are getting the speeds they are paying for. If not, they said they should re-negotiate.

Block and Stenberg shared details about the “Towards Gigabit Libraries” (TGL) toolkit, a free, self-service guide for rural and tribal libraries to better understand and improve their broadband. The new toolkit helps libraries prepare for E-Rate internet subsidy requests to aid their budget cycles.

It also has tips about communicating effectively between library and tech people since there is a gap in knowledge between those two groups. The TGL is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Gigabit Libraries and Beyond (GLG) to improve the toolkit and expand throughout the United States. In addition to focusing on rural and tribal libraries, now urban libraries will be included for support.

During the event, a live poll showed all participating attendees said they “very infrequently” had technical IT support available in their home libraries. Stenberg said this confirmed TGL’s findings that libraries need more tech and IT support, as the majority of respondents in previous surveys gave similar concerning results.

To really emphasize the need for adequate broadband and support at libraries, another question was asked to live attendees about their current level of expertise around procuring and delivering access to broadband as a service in their library, assuming that the majority of attendees worked for libraries. All participants said they possess “no experience” trying to get broadband in the library.

Common issues that are to blame include libraries with insufficient bandwidth, data wiring or poorly set-up networks. Old and obsolete equipment also contributed to bad Wi-Fi coverage.

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Education

Schools And Libraries Look For Solutions With $7 Billion In Federal Help

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot from SHLB event

April 6, 2021 – In a webinar last week hosted by the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), panelists discussed opportunities schools and libraries have to better serve their communities with the recent $7 billion provided through the American Rescue Plan, a $1.98 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden on last month.

Laura Cole, director at the BiblioTech public library, shared how a successful pilot program with Southwest Independent School District made a goal to provide digital access to 100 students. To date, 62 students had broadband installed with the remaining still being worked on. The project was done to act as a proof-of-concept for digital connection expansion in Bexar County, Texas, where broadband access rates are low. Though the program’s success has caused it to be extended through December 31, 2021, Cole said she recognizes that there needs to be a more permanent solution to close the digital divide in all areas where people lack internet.

At the Brooklyn Public Library in New York City, Selvon Smith, president of information technology and chief information officer at the library, said that collaborative programs with the New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, and the New York City Department of Education were able to provide thousands of free hotspot devices for the entire school year to under-connected people. The organizations created a “Bookmobile Wi-Fi” program that was comprised of three vans and one truck stocked with laptops and outfitted with Wi-Fi antennas.

And it’s not just libraries that benefitted from the $7 billion provided through the American Rescue Plan. Rajesh Adusumilli, assistant superintendent for information services at Arlington County public schools (APS), said his organization worked to address student connectivity needs throughout the pandemic. The rollout of the 1-2-3 Connect Me pilot program was a core part along with maintaining Comcast’s Internet Essentials Program sponsorship and continuing to provide devices and wireless access hotspots at Arlington’s public schools.

This pilot program was financed by the Virginia governor’s Fasttrack Broadband Funding program, and is an extension of broadband services off of the APS and county-owned fiber network.

It uses technology on the Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum band, which has allowed private networks solely meant for students. It allows for students to connect to the APS network from home so they can continue distance learning instruction and access APS resources. It also can save money as it does not require the county to build additional fiber to create the extension.

Now, all Arlington Public Schools are set up with wireless access, with 99.2 percent of all APS students having participated successfully in synchronous learning activities.

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Education

Lack of Awareness Sees Michigan Schools And Libraries Miss Out on E-Rate Funding: State Coordinator

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Joe Polasek taken from his LinkedIn page

March 30, 2021 – Despite expanded funding for the E-Rate internet subsidy program for schools and libraries, the Michigan State program coordinator said there’s an awareness problem that is causing those institutions to miss out on money in the state.

“I don’t know any school or library that feels they have enough funding,” Joe Polasek said at the “Connecting Michigan Communities: Digital Education in Michigan” event, hosted by Connected Nation Michigan.

The E-Rate program is based on free and reduced lunch eligibility reported by schools and can support schools’ recurring or one-time service costs for internet. In some cases, the program can cover up to 90 percent of an internet service bill, something Polasek would like to see more schools and libraries take advantage of in his state.

There have been recent legislative proposals to extend the E-Rate to cover internet subsidies to the home.

If a school or library qualifies for E-Rate funding, it can then use money that would have gone toward paying the internet bill for other needs like technology or education improvements.

While a growing number of schools are eligible in the program, the need to push libraries to qualify is even greater. Three years ago, 50 percent of Michigan libraries were participating in the E-Rate program, said Polasek. Libraries need to be aware of the benefits and help available to them in accessing much-needed funds and filing proper paperwork to qualify.

To date, Polasek said efforts to raise awareness of E-Rate funding have grown steadily, which has culminated in nearly 65 percent of libraries now receiving E-Rate funding.

Polasek’s role as a state coordinator is to facilitate the application process for prospective schools and libraries. He made it clear that he cannot actually file the paperwork on behalf of the applicant, but he is there to answer any questions and educate.

The verification process for E-Rate can be tricky to handle, he said. Confirming that the student count and discount rate are accurate is important because money is on the line.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said that the E-Rate program was recently expanded to cover subsidies to the home. The story has been corrected to say that various legislative proposals have been introduced to achieve that. As it is, the E-Rate program is based on free and reduced lunch eligibility reported by schools and can support schools’ recurring or one-time service costs for the internet.

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