When a student at Elliston Elementary in rural Montana logs onto her laptop for a remote lesson over the Internet, Tressa Graveley must ration the Web for the rest of her tiny school. The teacher tells other students to shut down their browsers and stop streaming video or there won’t be enough bandwidth for the eighth-grader’s lesson.
Elliston Elementary is on the wrong side of a new digital divide in this country. The school, decked out with laptops and whiteboards, hoped to harness the power of the Internet to break out of its isolation. But its connection is too slow to allow the 15 students and two teachers to fully use everything the digital world offers — videos, music, graphics, interactive programs.
But it’s not just rural school systems that are cut off from the digital world. An estimated 72 percent of public schools — in the countryside, suburbs and cities — lack the broadband speeds necessary to fully access the Internet, according to Education Superhighway, a nonprofit organization that wants to improve digital access in schools.
“Wiring schools has brought the Internet to the principal’s office or maybe a teacher’s desk,” said Evan Marwell, the chief executive of the group. “That’s five million administrators and teachers. But we need to move this technology into the learning process, and that means 55 million students.”
President Obama agrees, and proposed in June that all public schools receive high-speed broadband and wireless Internet service within five years. “In a country where we expect free WiFi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools?” Obama said when he announced the initiative at a school in North Carolina.
The plan, called ConnectED, calls for the Department of Education to train teachers in the best ways to use technology in classroom instruction, an area that many agree is weak.
To fund ConnectED, the Obama administration wants the Federal Communications Commission to modernize the way the money is allocated and perhaps to increase the E-rate, a surcharge the government has added to telephone bills since 1997. E-rate funding provides schools and libraries with discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent on telecommunications costs. The allocation is based on need, with poor districts getting priority and a greater share of money. It is the federal government’s largest education technology program.
The FCC has been accepting input from the public about ways to update the E-rate program, and whether to increase the amount collected under the program. A decision probably will be made next year, observers say.
The move comes at a time when schools are under increasing pressure to boost instruction in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and to prepare for a new era of annual computerized testing.
Supporters of E-rate say it has been pivotal in bringing schools into the technology age. When it began, only 14 percent of schools had Internet access. Today, that figure is 99 percent, according to the Obama administration.
But as the use of technology has exploded in American society, the technology available in schools has not kept pace. The proliferation of devices — laptops, tablets, smartphones — and education applications that require high-speed connections has put a serious strain on the E-rate program.
“There are amazing learning opportunities, ability to have access to engaging digital content, ability to connect to experts and learners around the country through the smart use of technology,” said Richard Culatta, director of the Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology.
The amount disbursed by the federal government has remained constant at $2.25 billion annually, with no adjustments for inflation. This year, school districts sought funding for projects worth $5 billion, or almost double that amount. Experts say that is just a rough estimate of actual need because E-rate’s rules encourage schools to apply for technology that may not be cost-effective and discourage them from requesting money for some big-ticket items.
The new digital divide has become urgent because of the coming Common Core academic standards in reading and math for grades K-12, which 45 states and the District of Columbia are implementing. As part of the Common Core, states are expected to get rid of pencil-and-paper standardized tests and administer online exams starting in the 2014-15 school year.
Not only will schools require enough computers to administer the tests, but they’ll need adequate broadband capacity, too. “The primary issue is the bandwidth,” said Jacqueline King of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups of states that are creating the new computerized tests.
Some experts say the federal government should consider a one-time investment to bring adequate broadband capacity to all schools.
That could cost about $11 billion, said John Harrington, the chief executive of Funds for Learning, a consulting firm that helps schools and libraries apply for E-rate money. He thinks the government also should increase the budget for the E-rate program.
Short of boosting the E-rate budget, there are other actions the federal government could take to make the program more efficient, Harrington and others said.
Almost half the E-rate money is spent on telephone service, beepers and other things that have nothing to do with getting Internet into the classroom. Redirecting that funding to broadband would increase Internet speeds at many more schools, experts say.
In addition, the cost of Internet service varies widely from district to district, and contract information between utilities and schools is not readily available. If pricing were transparent, it would help districts negotiate better deals, said Marwell of Education Superhighway.
“We need to know how this money is being spent,” he said. “Today the FCC has no way of knowing who’s paying a lot and who’s paying a little. Why is this school paying $5,000 for its connection and this school district is paying $100? If you let the schools see that information, it can only help them negotiate better deals.”
Telecommunications companies are cool to this idea, and several have indicated in comments filed with the FCC that disclosing prices could lead to unintended consequences, such as price-fixing.
Meanwhile, at tiny Elliston Elementary in Powell County, Mont., Tressa Graveley perseveres, trying to push her school boldly into the 21st century.
Last year, students there used Skype, the online communications tool, to talk with Mark Wood, a British adventurer, as he was climbing Mount Everest.
“It was so great, such an authentic learning situation,” said Graveley, whose students learned about geography, culture, altitude and elevation as they tracked Wood’s ascent and saw video images of the world’s tallest peak over their balky lnternet connection. “I got some really quality work — they learned scaled proportions, how our building compared to Mount Everest, they were blogging, we communicated with other schools in Japan, Nigeria, the U.K. It was fantastic.”