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Broadband: Huge potential, but access barriers remain

Broadband access boosts online learning’s potential, educators say.

Broadband internet access is crucial for student learning as online and blended learning expand throughout the country, but obstacles such as digital access and policy roadblocks must be addressed, said panelists during an Internet Innovation webinar on broadband’s potential in education.

A broadband backbone is invaluable for expanding learning quality and opportunities for students and teachers when it comes to differentiated instruction, content, communication, and administrative needs, said David Teeter, director of policy for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

Broadband supports online and blended learning, enables and enhances personalized learning and differentiated instruction, and supports decision-making.

Teeter offered a quick glance at online and blended learning across the country:

  •  30 states have state virtual schools or initiatives.
  • 10 states have online learning initiatives.
  •  50 states have significant state policies.
  • 30 states and Washington, D.C. allow more than 200 full-time virtual charter schools, with more than 250,000 students.
  • 30 percent all employers use eLearning for training, and in five years that figure will jump to 50 percent.
  • More than 70 percent of school districts in the U.S. offer online courses to students.

“Reliable and robust broadband is really critical,” Teeter said.

District online and blended learning programs are growing dramatically with broadband support. Broadband also offers expanded opportunities when it comes to instructional materials and open access, and under the Common Core State Standards, districts and states are working to develop materials for professional development, content, and learning.

Broadband access in education can:

  • Enable data systems and platforms to support teaching and learning.
  • Help schools and districts as textbooks are replaced by digital content in coming years.
  • Increase data availability and the ability to provide consistent electronic education records, which are able to be exchanged across schools and across the states.

“[These are] really exciting opportunities, but it’s really important that schools, districts, and states make sure the broadband capacity is in place to enable this,” Teeter said.

Insufficient connectivity creates gaps in districts and states that are able to take full advantage of broadband for education. Limited data access and lack of transparency present additional hurdles, because legislative and regulatory barriers inhibit online learning—for instance, teachers often cannot teach across state lines, and course accreditation is often based on seat time and not on outcomes or results.

There exists a “great digital divide between schools and classrooms that do and do not have the bandwidth to meet their needs,” Teeter said.

“Across the country, within many—if not the majority—of states, there are still areas where broadband access is very, very limited, and oftentimes these are schools and students who would most benefit through online and blended learning. That gap still exists, unfortunately.”

Kwame Simmons, principal of Washington, D.C.’s Kramer Middle School, said his school is doing innovative things with distance and online learning since it was identified as persistently low-performing.

Beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, Kramer Middle School will introduce a blended learning model to offer rich digital content and personalized learning to increase student engagement.

Kramer said the goal is to increase student proficiency on D.C.’s standardized test by 40 percentage points. The school’s average reading proficiency is 23 percent in reading and 22 percent in math.

The school will follow a model that uses 50 percent online instruction and 50 percent face-to-face instruction “to give students an opportunity to feel truly engaged and immerse them in technology for educational purposes,” Simmons said.

Every classroom features a SMART Board and at least three desktop computers, and the school has two floating carts outfitted with 30 laptops each.

Using a traditional block schedule of 90-minute classes, students will spend 45 minutes of their instructional time with online content and 45 minutes with a classroom teacher.

All classes will be supported by online content providers, including Adaptive Curriculum, Johns Hopkins University, Florida Virtual School, and TVTextbook. The content will be housed inside of BrainHoney, a learning management system.

BrainHoney will give students immediate access to their assignments, due dates, progress, important announcements, and teacher feedback. Teachers will be able to see all assignments due for all courses they teach, as well as a summary of all students and student performance.

Because Kramer Middle School is in a high-poverty area with limited digital access, the school will be open to parents through a series of workshops where parents will receive usernames and access codes to sign onto the system and view their children’s data and progress.

Simmons said one main issue his school may face will be its broadband capacity and ensuring that content and multimedia are accessible to all students and teachers at all times.

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