News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 10, 2014

Tech gains outpace schools’ connections

As handheld devices replace books, Internet speed lags

INDIANAPOLIS — Elle Cox is a good student who likes doing her homework, but some evenings it takes a 10-mile trip to the nearest McDonald’s.

In January, the fourth grader in rural Decatur County joined a growing number of Indiana students who are carting home iPads instead of textbooks. Elle loves the device but her home Internet service is often so slow, she can’t complete her assignments. When that happens, someone in her family drives her to McDonalds for its fast and free wireless connection.  

“The technology is great,” said Deborah Nobbe, Elle’s grandmother, “but not everybody is ready for it.”

Schools throughout Indiana are using technology to help students learn. They’ve spent millions rigging classrooms with interactive systems, in some cases replacing textbooks with digital devices.

But too often schools and students lack the fast, reliable Internet connections to support the digital shift, say administrators and education advocates. In some cases, teachers are pulling back on the use of digital devices, as principals and superintendents worry about how they’ll pay for increasing Internet demand.

“Our job is to prepare our students for the real world, and that means giving them the 21st century job skills they need,” said Johnny Budd, superintendent of Decatur County Community Schools. “For their sake, we need to make this work.”

Slow-speed connections

The problem for most Indiana schools and students isn’t Internet access. It’s speed.

Legislation deregulating telecommunications in Indiana in 2006 lead to a boom in connectivity. Public and private dollars poured into building broadband infrastructure. Within a few years Indiana went from ranking among the worst states for Internet access, according to the Federal Communications Commission, to being one of the best.

Now, nearly all school buildings and libraries have basic or better Internet access, paid for mostly by a federal program known as E-Rate. The program, overseen by the FCC, is funded through a monthly fee on telephone service of about $2.90 per user.

Indiana schools and libraries this year requested about $82 million from the program to subsidize Web connections and other technology infrastructure; on average, E-Rate pays about 72 percent of their connectivity costs. The state throws in another $2.6 million a year to schools and libraries for connectivity, while districts pick up the rest of the tab.

“The equity of access issue has largely been addressed,” said Terry Spradlin, director of government affairs in Indiana for Education Networks of America, which manages Internet services for a statewide network of about 350 school districts and libraries. “The challenge now is the need for more broadband to keep up with the demand that comes along with digital learning.”

That demand grows as schools put technology in the hands of more students and teachers, moving toward electronic texts, online testing, video streaming and other bandwidth-hungry programs. More than 90 Indiana districts issue digital devices – laptops or tablets – to every student.

But the capacity of Internet connections to support that technology is lagging. Many Indiana schools still don’t meet the FCC’s minimum target for Internet speed – 100 megabits per second for every 1,000 students and staff. The FCC says schools will need 10 times that speed in three years.

In January, the non-profit technology advocacy organization, Education SuperHighway, called for a massive influx of private and public funding to expand high-speed, high-capacity Internet in the nation’s classrooms after it found more than 70 percent of K-12 schools lacked the sufficient connections to support digital learning.

The cost to upgrade Indiana schools is hard to tag, but some estimate it will take an additional $10 million to $12 million per year. Education advocates and superintendents are already lobbying to boost the state’s Internet connectivity fund for schools.

“Those of us in rural districts have been talking about this for years,” said state Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg. “We don’t want the kids in our schools to fall behind.”

Without additional money, administrators who’ve seen budgets dwindle in recent years say they worry about keeping up. Their technology costs – including expenses for Internet connections – come out of capital funds that have been hard hit by property tax caps passed by the Legislature in 2008.

Access at home

Tom Hunter, superintendent of the Greensburg Community Schools, said his district will spend about $1 million over the next year to move all students into digital learning. But he’s starting slowly, with a pilot project for some students to gauge how they and their teachers adapt.

Among his concerns is the lack of Internet speed, both in his schools and in students’ homes. If the district moves students away from textbooks – and over to tablets and laptops – he wants to make sure they have the connectivity to use them.

“We want to make the investment,” Hunter said. “But we don’t have a million dollars to make a mistake with.” 

Others share his concern about slow Internet speeds at home. A 2010 report by the FCC found about one-quarter of rural Americans lack access to the kind of connections needed for the interactive digital learning that schools are adopting.

In the Decatur County Community Schools, for example, teachers report students who have trouble with Internet access at home are downloading assignments on their iPads before they leave school.

“We’re making accommodations as needed,” said Budd, the superintendent. He worries those accommodations may be more challenging as the district issues digital devices to high school students, who’ll need to be online more often for research projects.

Lack of speed is a national issue, prompting a promise from the Obama administration to pour more dollars into expanding high-speed Internet for schools. In February, the White House said it wants the FCC to overhaul E-Rate, and possibly raise fees on phone users, to come up with $1 billion more for school Internet connections.

If the money materializes, plenty of people will ask for it. The U.S. Department of Education estimates about 80 percent of U.S. schools have inferior Internet capabilities or that are only sufficient to support their computer labs and front offices. Many schools have the same connectivity as the average American home.

In Indiana, some districts are now holding back in the rush toward technology, concerned about connectivity, costs and security issues.

John Williams, superintendent of the Rush County Schools, said his district is still assessing whether its schools and students have enough high-speed access to abandon traditional textbooks for digital ones.

He’s cautious for a reason: During this year’s ISTEP – the standardized test that all students now take online – one of his schools lost Internet access when a farmer accidentally plowed the fiber-optic cable that delivers broadband service.

The cable was repaired and service was restored, but Williams said the mishap was a reminder of why schools need to be wary of technology’s limits.

“Sometimes all it takes is a farmer in a field with a plow too deep,” he said.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen. hayden@indianamedia group.com.

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