School broadband infrastructure has received considerable attention in recent years. The influx of devices and moves made by states to take annual standardized tests online, among other things, have highlighted how poorly connected some schools are — an issue that was further placed front and center in a recent report from Insight Enterprises that listed it as the No. 1 tech budget concern for IT administrators.
Simply put, connectivity fosters a lot of things, which is why, as part of his ConnectED initiative, President Barack Obama has also pledged to have 99% of America's schools connected to reliable broadband by 2018.
That's also why the Federal Communications Commission's E-rate program, which has seen its focus adjusted from school and library telephone connections to broadband and WiFi, exists. A December vote increased its funding by $1.5 billion to $3.9 billion. In the time since, the agency has seen a 92% boost in applications submitted for the funding.
A huge proponent of expanding access to broadband, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was on hand at ISTE 2015 in Philadelphia to speak about the need for students to be connected not just at school, but at home, as well. Education Dive caught up with Rosenworcel ahead of the show to talk E-rate, net neutrality, and women in STEM.
EDUCATION DIVE: With the increase in applications following December's funding increase, how close are we to meeting the president's goal, and how critical is the E-rate program in doing so?
JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: Well, I think the level of interest we saw in the recent round of applications suggests we’re well on our way toward meeting that goal. I think it’s really exciting, because the E-rate program was created back in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. And in 1996, “technology” meant a Palm Pilot or Pokémon. It was not what it means today. So I think the fact that during this last year, we took this program that was first developed in 1996 and rebooted it and reconfigured it for the digital age is very exciting, and it puts us on a course to have more broadband and WiFi in schools around this country — and when we have more broadband and WiFi in schools around this country, I think that is going to create more creative opportunities for learning content and instruction. So I’m really excited, and I think we’re on our way towards meeting the goal you described.
With the rise of flipped and blended learning, there’s also the issue of kids needing connectivity at home, too.
ROSENWORCEL: That’s what I call the “homework gap.” I spend a lot of time working on E-rate in these halls and visiting schools all around the country. I visited schools in Alaska in the summer and Florida in the winter — [laughs] I’m a real profile in courage — and a whole bunch of other states in between. And everywhere I went, I learned about E-rate and what it did in the school and for the students while they were at school, but just about every educator and administrator also talked to me about the importance of connectivity in the home.
When I came back to Washington and we started to study this, we learned that as many as seven in 10 teachers assign homework that now requires Internet access, but the FCC’s own data suggests that one in three households lacks Internet access. If you think about where those numbers overlap and then think about the students who might live in some of those homes, you have a community of students who are having a hard time getting their homework done without connectivity at home. The PEW Research Center did some studying of the homework gap and found it’s really. They found that there are 29 million households in this country with school-age children, and 5 million of them have no broadband access.
Just try to imagine being a student in one of those households, researching your paper, trying to manage online math programs and communicate with your fellow students and teachers, trying to apply for a scholarship — those things are not going to be easy. And while in low-income households, we do see an increase in the amount of smartphone use, I don’t think any parent wants their child researching and typing a paper on a smartphone, applying for a scholarship on a smartphone, or trying to do their schoolwork just using a handheld device.
What are some of the biggest benefits for schools from the net neutrality vote earlier this year?
ROSENWORCEL: I think our Internet economy is the envy of the world, and it was built on a foundation of openness. Our net neutrality policies continue that openness, and I think that means a lot of opportunity for creative, entrepreneurial types who care about education to come up with content and ways of teaching that make use of that bandwidth and make it more possible for more students to be engaged in school in ways that are totally different from when I was in school and it was limited to paper, pencil, and a textbook.
STEM is another area you’re passionate about. How can schools make those subjects more inviting for female students?
ROSENWORCEL: Big issue. I gave a speech, actually, on women and STEM issues at the Women in Consumer Electronics show up in New York earlier this week. The thing that strikes me most about that is that women hold half the jobs in the economy, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hold only a quarter of the STEM jobs. And yet STEM jobs are growing three times faster than all other jobs. So if we don’t start addressing this right now, we’re going to wind up with the next generation of girls being even further behind. So I think figuring out how to attract girls to STEM is a really important activity. It takes more role models. It takes more awareness of this at the local level. And I think it will also take some creative assessment of how we can engage more girls with traditional curriculum.
Do you think schools also have a major role to play in breaking the stereotype of what a STEM student is?
ROSENWORCEL: Yeah! Let’s do that! Let’s come up with everything cool that you can do with science, technology, engineering, and math and promote it. I think the idea that you sit alone wearing a sweatshirt and peck at your computer, coding, doesn’t attract a sufficiently diverse group of kids to STEM. So let’s talk about how those skills are inputs for so many important things that are happening in our economy, because we’ve got to attract a more diverse community to participate in the STEM economy.
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