Blog: The Educated Reporter

Schools See Big Jump in High-Speed Connections for Digital Learning

The share of school districts with internet access fast enough to support digital learning has skyrocketed in the past four years, to 94 percent from just 30 percent in 2013, according to a new report from the advocacy group EducationSuperHighway.

Four million K-12 students had access to high-speed broadband four years ago, compared with 39 million today, per the report. Based on the group’s projections, the remaining 6.5 million students could be in connected classrooms by 2020. (You can find the national overview, and state-by-state rankings, here.)

There’s been “great progress,” said EducationSuperHighway founder Evan Marwell, whose group advocates for bringing affordable high-speed internet to public schools. “However, our work is far from over. It is critical that federal and state leaders, schools, and service providers continue the hard work necessary to close the connectivity gap.”

And that gap is particularly noticeable in the more than 1,600 rural schools that lack connectivity for digital learning. (Benjamin Herold of Education Week made that the focus of an in-depth investigation in 2015.)

Pricing for high-speed connectivity varies widely across rural, urban, and suburban districts, Marwell told education journalists at the Education Writers Association’s national conference in Washington, D.C., in June. Schools pay far more than they should because they don’t know that negotiating for better deals is even an option, Marwell said.

He offered a specific example to Education Week’s Benjamin Herold in a story about the new report:

…Districts like Oklahoma’s 1,100-student Perry public schools—which recently quintupled its bandwidth, for just $60 more per month—have benefitted greatly from the ability to see what similar school systems are paying for their internet access. “Essentially, they call up their provider and say, ‘Hey, I see you are giving this other school district more bandwidth for the same money I’m spending. How come I can’t get that deal from you, too?’ ” Marwell said. “It’s just a matter of asking.”

EdSurge’s Stephen Noonoo points out that districts have several online tools to figure out whether they’re getting the best prices for their broadband. But she also notes that construction costs associated with these kinds of upgrades can be a significant stumbling block. 

Indeed, the strong commitment to the connectivity goal also involves the nation’s governors, according to EducationSuperHighway — 46 of them have collectively committed about $200 million in matching funds to help with related construction costs.

The quick gains on bringing high-speed internet to public schools got a big boost from the Obama administration’s ConnectED initiative in 2013. The following year, the Federal Communication Commission pledged to close the gap for schools with its E-rate program to help cover costs.

As Lauren Camera explained in U.S. News & World Report, “The E-Rate program often flies under the radar, operating out of the public eye due in part to its wonky funding mechanism that allows it to escape congressional appropriations battles. But policymakers hail it as one of the best examples of a federal effort that’s so far worked exactly as conceived.”

To be sure, digitally wired classrooms are not always synonymous with high-quality digital learning. Teachers need appropriate hardware and software, as well as training to make the most of those tools. And parents need to be ready to support their children’s use of the new technology. All of that takes time and money.

Nichole Dobo of The Hechinger Report summed it up for the EWA Topics Page on Digital Learning & Technology: “Be skeptical if the main goal of a technology initiative in a school is simply to give students a computer. Do not assume that flashy digital programs and devices are all that is needed to improve academic outcomes for students. High-quality teaching matters.”

For more ideas on how to approach your coverage of the “latest and greatest” classroom technology, take a look at our Five Questions to Ask and the EWA webinar, Three Stories to Steal on Digital Learning. Watch a video replay of Evan Marwell’s presentation at the EWA National Seminar here.