Schools to get $9M for off-campus wireless access

The FCC is trying to decide whether, and how, to extend e-Rate discounts to wireless service for off-campus use.

Government officials are handing out $9 million for projects that will help schools extend wireless internet connections beyond the classroom.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on March 9 announced 20 pilot projects that will receive federal e-Rate funding to pay for wireless broadband connections for laptops, smart phones, and other mobile devices, which students will be able to take with them after the school day ends.

The program is intended to give students—including those from low-income families who might have no other internet service at home—access to homework assignments, study guides, digital textbooks, and other educational resources outside of regular school hours.

Called Learning On-the-Go, the program will reach nearly 35,000 students across 14 states in the 2011-12 school year, FCC officials said. It will be paid for through the government’s e-Rate program, which funds internet access in schools and libraries but until now has never been used to pay for off-campus connections.

For more on mobile learning, see:

Mobile learning: Not just laptops any more

Kineo: Like an iPad, but made for students

New devices allow for mobile wireless broadband

The e-Rate is one of four programs that make up the Universal Service Fund, the federal program that subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural areas through fees collected from long-distance carriers. These carriers subsequently pass along a surcharge on their customers’ long-distance phone bills.

The projects that will be funded include programs that will pay for laptop connections for elementary and secondary school students in New Orleans, wireless cards for high school boys from low-income households in Philadelphia, and smart-phone access for students with Attention Deficit Disorder or Asperger’s syndrome in Canton, Ohio.

The FCC will evaluate the effectiveness of these pilot projects to determine whether, and how, off-premises wireless broadband services should be eligible for continued e-Rate support. The agency said it would reveal its criteria for evaluating the projects’ success in a forthcoming order, but the criteria will include how frequently and effectively students use resources outside of school for educational and research purposes.

The 20 pilot projects were chosen from among nearly 100 applications from school districts and libraries nationwide. Through these pilot projects, wireless connectivity will be provided to 10 netbook or laptop programs, two virtual online schools, three handheld-device programs, and five programs that combine various technologies, the FCC said.

“If we want our kids to be able to compete in the digital economy, we need to equip them with the latest digital tools and the skills to use them,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in announcing the pilot projects. “With [wireless] broadband, students who now carry 50 pounds of textbooks in their backpacks can instead have digital textbooks with up-to-date materials and cutting-edge interactive learning tools.”

He added: “Education doesn’t stop at the schoolyard gate or the library door, so support of broadband for education shouldn’t stop there, either.”

Alabama’s Piedmont City Schools, one of the pilot districts, will use its e-Rate funding to provide wireless internet access in students’ homes through a mesh network that encompasses the city limits. The network will enable students in grades 4-12 to use the laptop computers they’ve been given by the district at home as well as school.

“Our long-term plans include high school students taking a variety of online and at-school classes that are all being delivered by our teachers,” said Superintendent Matt Akin, a 2011 Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winner from eSchool News. “Imagine the possibilities—flexible schedules that allow students to work, take university or community college classes, and even complete their high school credits early to allow them to attend a local university during their senior year.”

Because about 65 percent of Piedmont’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the district could not implement its plans without providing internet access at home. “I truly believe that … we could be a model for instruction that could be used throughout the country,” Akin said.

For more on mobile learning, see:

Mobile learning: Not just laptops any more

Kineo: Like an iPad, but made for students

New devices allow for mobile wireless broadband

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