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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation.
It’s not too often people announce big problems solved. But EducationSuperHighway did it this week, announcing that the classroom internet connectivity gap is effectively closed – one year ahead of schedule, no less.
The nonprofit launched in 2012, and when it explored school connectivity data the following year, it found that just 30 percent of school districts had sufficient bandwidth to support digital learning, or 100 kbps per student. EducationSuperHighway wanted 99 percent of students to have that level of bandwidth by 2020.
The deadline was an arbitrary one, since the nonprofit’s founder and CEO, Evan Marwell, had no idea how long it would actually take to make that amount of progress. “We saw the first big leap of results in the 2015-16 year,” Marwell remembered. “I said ‘OK, this actually could happen.’”
The early finish hasn’t changed the organization’s planned closing date of August 2020. Marwell said they’ll take the extra year to try to reach the 98 school districts in the final 1 percent. The districts serve 750,000 students, after all. And Marwell wants all of them to experience the types of teaching and learning high-speed internet access facilitates.
“When we started all of this, it wasn’t because we wanted to get broadband in every classroom,” Marwell said. “We believed if we had connectivity in every classroom, that would give every teacher the opportunity to take advantage of digital learning.”
Their plan seems to have worked. EducationSuperHighway surveyed school districts and found that 94 percent use digital learning in at least half of their classrooms every week. And 85 percent of teachers support even greater use of digital learning in their schools, according to a recent survey by NewSchools Venture Fund and Gallup.
Marwell acknowledges internet connectivity is only a starting point. There is still a digital divide in classrooms based on what technology is being used and how. But it’s an important starting point.
“Without the connectivity you don’t even have a chance,” Marwell said.
When EducationSuperHighway launched, the Perry-Lecompton school district, in a rural area outside of Topeka, Kansas, still had laptop carts that teachers had to reserve if they wanted students to use computers in their classrooms. J.B. Elliott, the district’s current superintendent and then-principal of its lone high school, said teachers wasted a lot of time getting the cart at the start of class, passing out the laptops, getting students signed on and connected to the internet and then introducing their assignments. And he remembers battery life on those laptops lasting just an hour.
The whole setup was frustrating for teachers and students alike. So Elliott petitioned the school board to give each high schooler an iPad and improve the school’s infrastructure to support increased internet use.
It was a well-timed initiative. EducationSuperHighway’s advocacy supported the district’s efforts perfectly. The organization lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to allow districts to get or improve their Wi-Fi with money from a program called E-rate. E-rate is funded by collecting fees that telecommunications companies pass on to customers, and it supports massive discounts on goods and services for schools and libraries. EducationSuperHighway also drove bandwidth pricing way down making prices transparent (the group collected information from districts to create a searchable tool). Now districts know exactly how much their neighbors pay for bandwidth and it allows them to negotiate better deals. EducationSuperHighway also rallied the support of governors from all 50 states, getting them to prioritize classroom internet connectivity and set aside matching funds for infrastructure improvements.
The progress toward universal connectivity is remarkable. Yet with one element of the digital divide effectively closed, administrators in Perry-Lecompton already have their sights set on a related connectivity problem limiting students like theirs, what has come to be known as the homework gap.
“EducationSuperHighway helped as far as getting a solid internet connection to school districts,” said William Gantz, the district’s systems engineer. “But there needs to be another initiative now, like a rural internet initiative to get home access for our students. Reliable, affordable internet.”
“Affordable is key,” Elliott chimed in.
This story about classroom connectivity was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.