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Marooned

Schools with slow Internet access face challenges preparing students for a broadband world.

Wisconsin school librarian Sandy Heiden sees firsthand what happens when you try to teach broadband concepts in a slow-speed world. At one of the schools in Seymour Community School District, where she's based, connectivity is so slow that if the class is supposed to be looking at a Flash-enabled website, "you'll have the first three kids get on, no problem, then the fourth and fifth will take a little bit longer. By kid number twenty, no way."

Here's the surprising part: She's only about 15 miles away from the bustling city of Green Bay, home of the mighty Packers. "You'd think that we would be in the loop," she points out.

Classrooms with slow or no connectivity coupled with the same connection frustrations at home is a problem that urban dwellers used to ubiquitous Wi-Fi (even available in airplanes these days) probably don't think much about. But it's a very real part of the digital divide that teachers and students wrestle with daily.

"Anytime you have someone who can't get their questions answered-and I don't care if it's a student or an adult-if their question isn't answered, it's a roadblock. It just stops them from moving forward," says Heiden.

Superhighway Slowdown
How extensive is the problem? Not being able to jump online means being "stuck in the classroom of the 1930s, where the teacher's in front of the class telling you how it is," says Heiden. "You do not get a chance to collaborate, use social networks, use any sharing or other kinds of collaborative tools." And, considering such a large proportion of a student's waking hours are spent outside the classroom, "Internet access at home is also important for student development," she emphasizes.

About 100 million people in the United States don't have broadband access. An estimated 9.5 million students don't have access to the Internet outside of their schools, says Dan MacFetridge, business development director for Microsoft's Shape the Future initiative, which is aimed at bringing software, hardware, and discounted broadband service to low-income students.

According to the Federal Reserve, students without home computers have a high school graduation rate that is six to eight percentage points lower than those with Internet access at home, ultimately affecting the economy in terms of lower earnings. "You're really talking about close to 10 million kids who don't have the ability to do things that their peers are able to do," says MacFetridge.

The Federal Communications Commission, the Small Business Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture want Internet providers to expand to rural areas, but companies say the cost is prohibitive.

With the private sector reluctant to invest, it just may be up to the government and nonprofits. This summer, the USDA announced $103 million in federal funds to 16 states to boost broadband networks. And Shape the Future, which has provided technology and access for more than 10 million students around the world in the past five years (including 6 million globally this year), recently launched a three-year project to reach another 1 million.

The issue of low-income students lacking computers to go online has long been recognized as a problem. But the issue of rapid connectivity is also crucial, says Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), which, among other things, works to boost schools' bandwidth.

"It's not really the device that's the differentiator any longer; it's the quality of your connectivity," he says.

Slow or spotty Internet access can be a function of income; there are cash-strapped schools that can't afford to install the equipment needed for broadband and low-income families who don't have enough money to pay for the high-speed access that is available in their community. But there are also areas that are rural and far away from services and/or face geographical challenges, such as mountains that bounce signals around, which affects everyone.

ISTE is a strong supporter of E-rate, a government program that allows schools and libraries to buy telecommunications and Internet service at a discount. One district that's been helped by the E-rate program is Ukiah Unified in Northern California. Ukiah is less than 150 miles north of Silicon Valley, but until it got an upgrade about three years ago under E-rate, the district's Internet access would often slow to a crawl, especially in the afternoon.

Barbara Ganter, one of the district's technology integration teachers, jokes that if she'd been a smoker she would have been able to light up and finish a cigarette in the time it took to download big files such as photographs.

Installation of fiber-optic cables and other up-to-date equipment at Ukiah has speeded things up considerably, as much as 10 times faster at some schools. But the district still faces challenges because demand for bandwidth, especially wireless access, is growing rapidly as more teachers and students begin to use individual devices such as tablets to access materials.

Creating Workarounds
District officials in Ukiah have learned how to get the best out of their resources, says Ganter. For instance, they recently held an iPad training for middle school teachers at the high school, where connectivity is better. An online back-to-school training session for teachers in August, on the other hand, was hampered by wireless connection problems.

The infrastructure upgrades have been significant and would be more than sufficient if the school still lived in a world where the only access needed was in computer labs, says Theresa House, a Ukiah district technology integration teacher. But today's teaching environment is moving more toward one-to-one connectivity, where students, teachers, and administrators all need to get online.

Access matters, says district superintendent Lois Nash, because "technology is a tool, and we want our children to have access to the same tools as other children and communities throughout the state, and even throughout the world. We have to prepare our children to be competitive in a global economy."

Schools with connectivity issues have come up with creative coping strategies. In Heiden's district, Seymour CSD in Wisconsin, four of the district's buildings have fast Internet access, but one, serving K-8 students, has slow access. So if a teacher is leading a section on mitosis and wants to show a two-minute clip on cell division, he or she might
download the material after school, when fewer people are online, or download at home. In class, if only 10 students can get streaming material, students double up and share monitors. Teachers use interactive whiteboards and projectors to bring content to the class.

Still, says Heiden, there are gaps-activities that students in slow-speed classrooms just can't do. She compares connectivity issues to "trying to drink a really thick milkshake through a straw."

Other workarounds in rural districts are more hands-on, or rather, "boots-on." When too much snow collects on the satellite dishes used to bring the Internet to three schools outside Douglas, Wyoming, the district gets creative.

The high-tech solution? "Get a broom out," says John Gibson, technology director for Converse County SD No. 1.

Four schools in Converse's more urbanized area connect to the Internet using T1 links, which work, although they're not the fastest. Among the district's five rural schools are three where the options are dial-up (much too slow) or satellite, which works, but is relatively slow and has some time lag, making it difficult to do things like watch streaming video or videoconference, two tools that are particularly useful for schools in remote locations.

The district is looking at working with a partner and using wireless technology to bring high-speed connectivity to Converse, although that will require a significant investment. In the meantime, teachers and administrators use a number of workarounds, choosing Web-based applications carefully and looking for programs where information can be stored locally, so class-time Internet access isn't as much of an issue.

Still, the lack of high-speed "restricts us at times on the things we can do, because many of the new resources really don't think about [connectivity status] as much as they used to," says Gibson.

Having high-speed Internet access may not sound indispensable to people who grew up in paper-and-pencil classrooms, but in fact it is, says ISTE's Knezek. Like in the past, today's students study content and concepts. But the things they need to learn aren't necessarily in textbooks, he says, and the jobs they're headed for will likely require familiarity with high-speed technology.

"It's a different kind of communication than we had prior to the digital communications revolution. If you worked with a team, you worked with a team that was in proximity to you rather than a world apart. The content is around the world right now, and you have to be connected to get to that."

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