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As the demands of a global workforce grow, broadband plays a key role in critical access to educational opportunities

Broadband expands equitable access to education, workforce prep

As the demands of a global workforce grow, broadband plays a key role in critical access to educational opportunities

Digital learning not only plays a crucial role in preparing today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow, it also has an important role in providing equity and access to education–especially in smaller and remote school districts. This makes access to adequate and reliable broadband even more important as the development of new technologies continues.

The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) is now preparing to accommodate next-generation technologies such as 5G, virtual reality, robotics, and esports.

Related content: 7 things supporting broadband best practices

During a recent edWebinar, Christine Fox, SETDA’s deputy executive director, provided an overview of the opportunities and challenges schools and districts now face. Marc Johnson, executive director of East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative (ECMECC), then provided perspective from a regional and local level on the expanding use of broadband.

Broadband’s big picture

Fox started with an overview of the diverse approaches to providing educational broadband access across the U.S., with 28 states currently using statewide K-12 broadband networks, 9 states using regional networks, and 16 states using alternative methods such as purchasing consortia. What all these types of organizations share is a commitment to developing a modern, agile workforce comprised of lifelong learners who can grow along with evolving technologies.

While there’s a strong focus on preparing students for the future of work, both in terms of the variety of jobs and how those jobs are continuing to change, educational networks also need to provide ongoing support for day-to-day tasks such as personalized learning, enabling students to take online assessments, and helping administrators efficiently accomplish their tasks in an accurate and secure way. There’s also an emphasis on ensuring inclusion of diverse students in different types of settings.

This requires technological leadership with a shared vision that includes input from all stakeholders, as well as clear goals, effective communication, and the use of research-based best practices. This also requires reliable broadband access that is scalable and available to meet the needs of changing technologies and student populations.

Looking toward the future, Fox sees administrators moving beyond providing broadband to a building, and instead focusing on making it accessible throughout a building. Digital learning no longer occurs in just the classroom, and schools need to look at providing access in a variety of areas and at different times of days, so students without internet access at home don’t have to walk to a McDonald’s or a Starbucks after school and use an unsecure Wi-Fi network to do their homework.

Links to local learning

Johnson explained that Minnesota has 18 regional networks across the state, most of which now use leased fiber-optic networks. This provides them with a scalable infrastructure, and by monitoring disruptions and usage levels, administrators can buy additional bandwidth to accommodate future growth before it becomes a critical need.

The ECMECC staff provides instructional technology support for districts, which is especially important for smaller districts that may not be able to have full-time tech support people of their own. The staff also manage the network’s shared firewall and other security features that help to prevent denial-of-service and malware attacks. There’s also a data center that provides off-site storage and backup.

Moving forward, Johnson and his team will be facilitating schools’ implementation of 1-to-1 device initiatives, and the introduction of more 21st-century digital courses, which districts can then make their own through a process he calls “curriculum adaptation” rather than curriculum adoption.

A key aspect of this type of teaching and learning is the increased use of interactive video for online field trips and other purposes. Examples include the opportunity for high school students taking health classes to observe and interact with medical personnel as they perform procedures, or a musician in a distant city teaching classes and leading rehearsals while online.

This type of distance learning can be especially valuable for small, rural districts, but also for under-funded districts in urban areas that don’t always have the resources to send students to other parts of a city. In these and other ways, broadband access and increased bandwidth are having an ever more important role in providing access and equity for 21st century educations.

About the presenter

Marc Johnson is Executive Director of East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative (ECMECC), a telecommunication and technology cooperative of fourteen K-12 school districts in East Central Minnesota. Marc is in his eleventh year as ECMECC director having spent two years prior as technology director for ISD 15 and seven years as an instructional technology specialist for the St. Croix River Education District. Previously, he taught middle and high school mathematics and college technology courses. Marc brings eleven years of experience managing a regional wide area network providing Internet access, shared network services, and network security to over 39,000 students, 2,800 faculty/administrators, and 2,200 educational support staff. On the broadband front, Marc serves on the Blandin Foundation Broadband Strategy Board and is an appointed member of the Minnesota Governor’s Task Force on Broadband. Marc continues to advocate for and work with several other broadband initiatives in the state and with organizations like SETDA.

About the host

Christine Fox serves as Deputy Executive Director for SETDA. As the deputy executive director, she collaborates with the executive director in charting strategic direction, administration, planning, and financial decisions involving SETDA. She also facilitates the members’ professional learning opportunities, including planning and implementing the content for SETDA’s virtual and in-person events and newsletters. In addition, she manages many of SETDA’s research and product development projects from conception to publication. The management of such projects includes coordinating data collection from all states, supervising consultants and staff, ensuring member input and supervising the publishing process. Recent publications and projects include Navigating the Digital Shift reports 2015-2019, the Professional Learning and K12 Instructional Materials Dashboards, the Broadband Imperative Report Series, Guide to Quality Instructional Materials, Digital Instructional Materials Acquisition Policies for States, and The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning. Christine Fox’s background includes experience in education and consulting. She has worked as an educational consultant and curriculum developer for a national whole-school reform model, ESOL Coordinator, and 3rd-grade teacher. Christine has a Master of Science in teaching English as a second language from Florida International University and received her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Florida State University. She lives in South Florida with her husband and two daughters.

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Essential Elements for Digital Content is a free professional learning community on that provides policy makers, school administrators and educator leaders a better understanding of policies and practices related to digital instructional materials.

This edWeb broadcast was hosted by SETDA and sponsored by ENA. The recording of the edWebinar can be viewed by anyone here.

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