There was a time when the nation thought two-lane roads would meet all of its transportation needs, but when demand exceeded capacity, the federal government acted to expand to interstate highways and ease congestion. Similar action is needed today for the nation’s schools and libraries, where far too many teachers, librarians, and students are facing congestion of a different kind: Internet connections that are slow or nonexistent. That’s something you probably have experienced firsthand.
Thankfully, change is underway. As I mentioned in last month’s column, President Obama announced ConnectED, a plan to provide 99% of the nation’s students with next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in schools and libraries within five years.
Shortly thereafter, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it is accepting public comments on a proposal to expand and modernize the E-rate program, the federal government’s program for connecting the nation’s schools and libraries to the Internet. When the public comment period closes in mid-October, the FCC could take major action that does not depend on congressional action. This is the first real opportunity in years to achieve genuine improvements in access to modern education for all students.
Since its creation in 1996, the E-rate program expanded access to the Internet from 14% of classrooms to 94% by 2005. Ten years ago, access to the Internet was enough; web pages were largely text-based with a few images; YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter had not even been created; and in schools, a single dial-up connection met the needs of schools that were lucky enough to have a computer lab.
Today, teachers and students use laptops, tablets, and smartphones to connect with much more interactive content on the Internet. The combination of richer content with more devices vying for access slows Internet connections to the point they aren’t useful. According to a recent survey from Project Tomorrow, only 15% of schools say they have the bandwidth needed for instructional purposes. That means the nation’s teachers and students are stuck on the old two-lane model.
Broadband connectivity in schools and libraries is critical to achieving the higher college- and career-ready goals that have been set for students across the United States. Technology exists to make this implementation possible and lead a significant transformation of the nation’s education system, but much more must be done to increase the infrastructure to ensure a smooth transition.
Whether located in an urban or rural setting, all students should be afforded access to robust digital learning through streamed video, online courseware, virtual field trips, and safe and reliable connections to appropriate Internet research. Teachers and librarians need high-speed connections to personalize content, video chat with mentors, and interact with online professional development communities.
To meet these exploding education and technology goals, the Alliance for Excellent Education has launched a “99 in 5” campaign urging the FCC to upgrade the E-rate program to provide 99% of the nation’s students with next-generation broadband and high-speed Internet connections in schools and libraries within five years. You can add your name to the effort and share your experiences—both rewarding and frustrating—with the Internet connection in your school at www.99in5.org.
By expanding high-speed Internet in the nation’s schools and libraries, the federal government can ensure that teachers and students have access to tools that help personalize learning and make it possible for all students to reach their learning destinations.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C.