Home > Uncategorized > The Case for Broadband for ALL – Part I: Rural Schools

The Case for Broadband for ALL – Part I: Rural Schools

January 9, 2016

I’ve written several earlier posts on the requirement that broadband be available to ALL if we ever ope to use technology effectively in education, and three articles in the past week underscore the urgency to do this and directly or indirectly underscore the fact that only the government can make this happen.

Earlier this week “Salvaging Education in Rural Tennessee” Rachel Martin’s article in the Atlantic described how broadband brought wider horizons and more success to students in Fentress County, a remote rural Tennessee school district. Focussed on the efforts of Phil Brannon, the Principal at York Institute, the one high school in that region, Martin describes how rural poverty impacts students:

As the Southern Education Foundation announced last January, a majority of the schoolchildren attending the nation’s public schools now come from low-income families. The implications, for rural, urban, and suburban children alike, are serious. Students who come to school hungry often find it difficult to focus on learning. Students without computers or Internet access may have trouble with their homework. Students who are homeless or need clothing or lack medical care can develop behavioral problems.

She describes the persistent poverty in Fentress County, which sounds much like the economic conditions communities face in the North Country of NH and the Northeast Kingdom of VT, and asks Mr. Brannon to explain what helped him turn around the school he leads. Here’s his response:

It’s been a bit more of a challenge to integrate technology into York’s classrooms. By next semester, the school should have 300 Chromebooks, a set of servers to replace the 10-year-old ones the school currently uses, and a new wi-fi system that won’t crash from overuse; ultimately, the goal is to equip each student with a computer. Brannon worries that without that daily computer use, his students will fall behind their urban and suburban peers. Plus, technology is economical. According to Brannon’s calculations, the school spends almost $80,000 a year on textbooks, but e-books are a third that cost.

The school is lucky because the local service provider in Fentress County used the Recovery Act to wire the community, so Brannon just needs the hardware. This is one place York has an advantage over some other rural districts. According to a recent study by Education Week’s Benjamin Herold, rural districts pay up to 2.5 times as much as urban schools for internet service, and then it is too slow for teachers to use in their classrooms. This means 21 million students lack access to adequate Internet service.

And while technology isn’t, as Herold told me, “an automatic panacea for rural schools,” experts say access to the Internet can offset rural students’ disadvantages through dual-enrollment classes, adaptive-learning software, distance learning, and access to communities of educators.

So… how did a remote Tennessee district get internet access? The same way that same county likely received electricity: the federal government underwrote the initiative using stimulus funds. Would the children in this remote TN outpost have gotten high speed internet without ARRA funding? Given the high rates charged by the private sector to string fiber to areas where few paying customers live it is unlikely. And the result of not having internet: an entire group of students and teachers would not have access to “…dual-enrollment classes, adaptive-learning software, distance learning, and access to communities of educators”.

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