State of Alaska Approves Regulations to Improve Internet Speeds in Alaska’s Public Schools

Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor recently approved a regulation to improve the Internet speeds of Alaska’s public schools. This is great news for Alaska’s schools, specifically those in rural Alaska with less than 10 Mbps download speed per school. As I’ve shared in numerous posts, Alaska’s vast size and challenging geography prevents many schools from receiving high-speed bandwidth. The average Internet speed in Alaska is the slowest in the country. A new study featured in the Washington Post reveals that the average speed in Alaska is just 7 Mbps. In a world where high-speed broadband is defined as 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and is growing to 1 Gbps per 1,000 students in the next five years, Alaska’s schools are at a disadvantage, especially with the promise for technology to close the opportunity gap.

The Alliance for Excellence in Education and the LEAD Commission recently published Schools and Broadband Speeds: An Analysis of Gaps in Access to High-Speed Internet for African American, Latino, Low-Income, and Rural Students. The author, John B Horrigan, PhD., noted that only 17.9 percent of students in remote rural areas of the U.S. have access to Internet speeds of 100 Mbps. In comparison, Alaska does not have ANY schools in rural-remote areas with 100 Mbps Internet speeds.

In an age where online applications, testing, lesson plans, and storage are increasingly the norm for schools across the globe, our students in Alaska continue to be underserved. Dr. Horrigan states “students in schools with Internet speeds of 10 Mbps or less are characterized as those at a disadvantage in contrast to others due to the relatively slow speeds they experience at school. Students in schools whose Internet speeds are 100 Mbps or more are at an advantage relative to others, in that they enjoy fast online speeds at school.” Some of Alaska’s schools have less than 5 kbps/student available during peak use. But this will soon change, largely because of the vision and leadership from the North Slope Borough School District (NSBSD).

Two years ago, the NSBSD took action. Peggy Cowan, NSBSD Superintendent and Dr. Lisa Parady, former NSBSD Assistant Superintendent worked with their legislators, Representative Benny Nageak and Senator Donny Olsen to promote an idea to expand the efforts of the Universal Services program, E-Rate to leverage more bandwidth for students. Cowan said, “The NSBSD Board of Education has prioritized broadband in their legislative advocacy for more than five years. Equity of access provides equity of educational opportunities. Our rural students need more access to virtual experiences than their urban counterparts, not less. We are grateful to the legislature for their recognition of the needs of all students of Alaska and this step towards increasing opportunities for our students.”

The Lieutenant Governor recently filed the regulations presented from the Alaska State School Board adding new sections to implement funding for the improvement of Internet speed at public schools. Effective 11/13/2014, Register 212, January 2015. “AS 14.03.127 provides the authority for a district in which one or more schools qualify for a discounted rate for Internet services under the federal universal services program. These districts may apply to the department of education for funding to increase the download speed of the Internet to 10 Mbps for a circuit or connection that is accessible to student Internet users at a school operated by the district.” Schools that applied by the December 1, 2014 deadline will be notified by the department no later than January 30, 2015.

Today, this vision and leadership has become a reality for students across Alaska, thanks to the drive and direction from the NSBSD. Parady (now Executive Director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators) shares, “One of the greatest challenges facing Alaska’s students and educators is simply the tyranny of distance – our state is so vast and our schools so scattered. The great equalizer is broadband – the chance to take content into every corner and to every student. To do so, we need bandwidth, it’s just that simple, and last year the legislature supported this initiative which delivers a down payment on the path to digital equity by beginning to bring equity to all schools by supporting connectivity at a floor of 10 Mbps. As a state we need to stay the course to ensure our students are competitive in a global landscape.”

This is a big win for school districts in Alaska that are struggling to catch up with the rest of the country. We have not arrived, but we are on our way and must continue to work.

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Please share your comments below. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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FIRST Program Now Open in Alaska

It’s that time again for FIRST LEGO League (FLL) to kick off qualifier events in Alaska, where teams across the state compete for the chance to participate at the statewide championship event in Anchorage on January 17, 2015! FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a program designed to get students, ages 9-14, excited about science and technology. Through real-world engineering challenges, students develop critical-thinking, team-building, and presentation skills.

Beyond building Lego robots, teams must work together to solve a real-world problem and share research findings with others. This year’s challenge is “World Class: Learning Unleashed.” Students use their research skills to identify a problem and then create an innovative team solution and presentation. In addition, students are evaluated on how well they work as a team and show off the FLL core values of team participation, displaying gracious professionalism, and honoring the spirit of friendly competition.

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I’m proud to work for a company like GCI that honors the spirit of innovation and strives for its employees to work with students across Alaska. This past week, I took several of my colleagues to Bethel, Alaska where we had the privilege to judge and referee the Lower Kuskokwim School District FLL qualifier event. At the same time, another group of ten GCI SchoolAccess employees volunteered their time to judge and referee the “Virtual FLL tournament”. This virtual tournament was hosted by GCI SchoolAccess Cloud Video service. We had 7 teams represented by Valdez City Schools and North Slope Borough School District, including teams from Point Hope, Barrow, Nuiqsut, and Atqasuk. We also had a team watching from Point Lay. This was all made possible through using SchoolAccess Video.

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SchoolAccess is proud to be a long time partner with the FIRST program nationally and in Alaska. We are inspired by their mission to foster interest in science and technology to help shape well-rounded students and create future leaders. Through volunteering to judge and referee competitions and providing video conferencing technology to help students participate virtually, we are excited to continue supporting FIRST.

Read all about how GCI SchoolAccess and JEDC Bring FIRST LEGO League to Alaska’s Students.

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Advancing Digital Teaching and Learning in Alaska

Kodiak robotsLast year, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell announced a three-year initiative to create three to four demonstration projects, showcasing efforts to bring school districts together to provide shared teaching and learning experiences through the use of synchronous and asynchronous learning modalities. The Alaska Digital Teaching initiative, passed by the Alaska legislature, created an application process, where more than 40 percent of the school districts submitted their ideas and projects. This  initiative is designed to  provide examples for delivering high-quality interactive distance courses to middle and high school students; increasing student access to a diverse array of courses; empowering  teachers to reach beyond their own classrooms; training teachers; and expanding school districts’ infrastructure, technology and staffing.

Grants under the Alaska Digital Teaching Initiative were recently announced with GCI SchoolAccess customer Kodiak Island Borough School District (KIBSD) among the list of recipients. This grant is intended to increase student engagement and academic performance in core content areas with an emphasis in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); increase life-literacy skills; enhance and expand online delivery models; and create a network of well-trained online educators. KIBSD will partner with the Pribilof, Lower Kuskokwim, Lower Yukon, Northwest Arctic, Lake and Peninsula, Nome, St. Mary’s and Annette Island school districts on this opportunity.

For years, Alaska has been a pioneer in digital teaching and learning. Today, local schools are integrating technology in the classroom to provide their students and educators with incredible learning opportunities. From a student broadcasting team that delivers live reports on site from the Iditarod sled dog race, to a live satellite link up with astronauts in space, to simply learning calculus from a teacher in another school district miles away, digital teaching and learning enables students to receive an education that is on par with – if not better than – students in more urban environments.

Using a combination of technologies and a one-school concept, KIBSD has transformed from a district that was limited by its remote and rural location to one that is thriving because of it. Its eight remote schools serve between 10 and 30, K-12 students each with one or two teachers in single buildings. KIBSD schools are not connected by road, and the majority of the schools can only be reached by air and use satellite for their Internet and video conferencing network.  Now, it is not only one of the most technologically advanced districts in the state of Alaska, but also students’ scores on standardized tests are increasing. In addition, all students in the district are benefitting from the continually growing curriculum provided over video conferencing, which now includes languages, music and sports, and the technological advancements to support it.

Most recently, KIBSD implemented mobile video conferencing using a robot. This technology has brought remote administrators to the office, allowed students in remote villages to fully participate in regular classes, provided professional development to teachers from out-of-state trainers, facilitated the coaching of village sports teams and much more. These robots bring mobility, proximity and body language not possible with regular distance delivery options.

KIBSD has shown that by taking advantage of the opportunities presented through digital teaching and learning, rural communities can become 21st-century learning environments, regardless of their location. Video conferencing, broadcasting, video podcasts and transportable Internet have revolutionized the way students in rural communities learn and interact with the world. Using these tools educators can open doors to new content and develop the skills that will help students succeed in today’s increasingly global society.

You can view some brief examples of how digital teaching and learning is used in Alaska to improve education now. GCI SchoolAccess will continue working with KIBSD and the other school districts to explore synchronous opportunities to advance digital teaching and learning in Alaska.

How are you using online learning to improve education in your school? Let us know in the comments below. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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Learning Analytics: The Next Big Thing in Education

Education has changed dramatically with the introduction of new technologies that allow students to learn in ways that were not possible a few years ago. From connecting students in remote areas to subject matter experts through video conferencing to allowing distance learning, students and teachers reap the benefits of a constantly changing education environment.

So what is next? There are companies in the EdTech space that are doing some very interesting work in learning analytics, which I believe is the next evolution for education.

Kate-W_HeadsetLearning analytics are not new in the technology space; Google has been using analytics to “learn its users” for some time.  What happens when these same kinds of analytics allow for teachers and students to create an environment where “school” learns the student instead of the student learning the “school”?  Several cutting edge companies are working on solutions that create a learning environment focused on students.

Take Dimensional Learning Solutions: by making online learning adaptive, this company is able to customize learning for an individual student to fit how they learn best. Traditionally online learning has been one-size-fits-all with limited ability to adapt to individual needs. I talked with Brian Talbott, founder and CEO of Dimensional Learning and he said that new research indicates that not only do students learn through different styles, but they learn different concepts through different learning styles. With analytics, educators can understand how a student is learning, and if they are running into problems, redirect them down a different path using an alternative learning style. Dimensional Learning Solutions provides customized feedback for both students and instructors and gives actionable insights.

Nervanix is another company making waves in learning analytics. According to Adam Hall, founder and CEO of Nervanix, the company is pioneering a concept called “attention adaptivity” which leverages attention data through EEG devices that monitor the brain while a student learns. This data helps to inform instruction and adapt to a learner’s style in real time. Nervanix recently launched its first product, Nervanix Clarity. It’s a headset designed for students that monitors their attention while studying material via a mobile device or computer. Students can look at the data to see how well they are studying and pinpoint sections they should revisit because they “zoned out.” Nervanix provides software that works as an extension for existing education products and services.

It is exciting to think about what education could look like with wide adoption of these technologies. But in order for these innovations to work, students and teachers must have access to reliable, high-speed broadband, regardless of their zip code. Without access to broadband, the learning gap will continue to grow in rural areas around the country, including parts of Alaska. As we move forward to the next phase of education, access for everyone is key.

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Don’t Overlook Alaska in E-Rate Reform

I had the recent opportunity to hear about the results of EducationSuperHighway’s analysis of E-Rate spending at the FCC’s E-Rate Workshop last month. EducationSuperHighway’s findings demonstrate how Alaska remains an outlier that warrants special considerations when it comes to E-Rate reform. Below, I compare EducationSuperHighway’s insights with the reality in Alaska:

Insight 1: We face an urgent challenge to ensure that our students do not fall further behind

EducationSuperHighway notes that 40 million students lack adequate access to high-speed broadband, and that poor and rural districts were more likely to fall in this category. This is indeed true for Alaska. 79% of the districts I work with do not meet today’s connectivity standards.

Insight 2: Schools are not meeting the ConnectED goals because high-speed broadband is not affordable

This is certainly true for Alaska. Schools that have more money/students and are closer to connectivity sources are the ones that are meeting the ConnectED goals, leaving behind those poorer, smaller populated, rural schools – like those in Alaska. Indeed, the most isolated schools are often the most expensive to serve.

Insight 3: Schools that are able to afford high-speed broadband provide an actionable roadmap to enable every school to meet the ConnectED goals

The actionable roadmap suggested by EducationSuperHighway – migrating to fiber, purchasing to scale, taking advantage of competition and taking location initiative – admittedly disregards the smallest schools and underestimates the cost of migrating to fiber in remote, rural communities. Rural Alaskan schools are hundreds of miles from the connectivity source with little hope of a real fiber solution in the foreseeable future due to the climate, terrain, permitting and rights of way issues, and the dearth of roads. Satellite and microwave middle-mile solutions are expensive to deploy and maintain in remote Alaska. Thus, rural Alaskan schools cannot expect middle-mile solutions at urban fiber rates and will continue to rely on significant E-Rate support to educate our children. No amount of competition or large-scale purchases can change that reality. The unaffordability exists even when school districts come together to aggregate purchasing power and in competitive environments, which they frequently do.

Insight 4: 96% of schools could meet today’s internet access and WAN standards if the FCC focused the E-rate program on broadband, but meeting the five-year ConnectED goals will likely require a combination of lower prices and more resources

We wholeheartedly agree with this insight. But what about the 4% that can’t meet today’s Internet access and WAN standards, let alone the ConnectED goals? Those are the schools in remote, rural Alaska that I’ve been referring to. As the FCC considers E-Rate reform this summer, they must not forget this 4%, for whom Internet connections at school are often the best connection available in their communities.

To ensure that these remote, rural communities continue to get the available connectivity that they need, the FCC must prioritizing some funding requests over others. My employer, General Communications, Inc. (GCI), has proposed an E-Rate “Priority 0” that would help guarantee E-Rate support for connectivity to rural-remote communities in Alaska and the lower 48 before Priority 1/2 funding is disbursed. Rural-remote school districts spend more on transport, because they are the furthest away from Tier 1 Internet POPs. This high-cost service does not exist for most urban and suburban schools and libraries. As previously noted, rural communities disproportionately lack adequate Internet connectivity and need more support for middle-mile infrastructure to remote locations, not less. Establishing Priority 0 support for distant connections from a rural community to the Internet will help to ensure that these communities are not disproportionately affected by a revision or elimination of the Priority categories or the distance component of the per-student/patron cap, therefore reducing the anti-rural nature of some E-Rate reform proposals.

We urge the FCC to continue the current E-Rate program in Alaska, in addition to creating financial opportunity for build-out of terrestrial infrastructure for Alaska.

Are your school’s needs being met through E-Rate? Please share in the comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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Connecting Students in Lower Kuskokwim School District with High Quality Learning

Dan-walker-awardMy good friend Dan Walker was recently honored as one of Education Week’s 2014 Leaders to Learn From for his outstanding work connecting the students at Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) with high quality learning programs. Dan understands the technological challenges associated with providing quality education to 4,000 students spread out over 23 small, remote communities throughout Bethel, Alaska – 400 air miles west of Anchorage on the coast of the Bering Sea. As the Assistant Superintendent for LKSD, Dan has spent the vast majority of his career using technology to solve education problems through STEM programs, including being an advocate for his students in the Alaska Native Science, Engineering and Math program.

LKSD is roughly the size of West Virginia or Ohio with only 4,000 K-12 students in 27 schools, ranging in size from 15 to 520 students. Its 23 communities are accessible only by plane with a population that is 95% Yu’Pik. Approximately 90% of the population lives at or below poverty level, and many students are largely deficient in English and math.

In partnership with GCI SchoolAccess, Dan has implemented the state’s largest distance education program through video conferencing to ensure that all students across the district have access to the same educational opportunities and that their education is on par with students in more urban environments. Each school has direct access to the teaching studio in Bethel and fellow schools within the district so they can receive instruction from highly qualified teachers in math, science, Alaska native language, and more. Students from LKSD participate in district-wide programs and nationwide competitions without having to leave their homes in remote villages. These programs include eJournalism, a summer film academy, a Yu’Pik eBook creation program, the FIRST LEGO League, Robotics League competitions, and more.

Dan works to secure funding through grants to provide students with computers and other technology tools they – and their families and neighbors – would not otherwise have access to. He began the first one-to-one laptop program in LKSD, eventually having a laptop for all students in 5th through 12th grades. Dan has also worked to improve the technology infrastructure to allow continual advancement for LKSD’s technology program. He moved the district from satellite-based Internet connectivity to a terrestrial system that has greatly increased the reliability of Internet access for all students and staff in LKSD.

Dan’s work has had both quantitative and qualitative impacts on the students in his district. Students’ math proficiency and test scores have improved, partly leading to additional students qualifying for state scholarship programs. In addition, traditionally shy children are creating their own study groups over videoconference, formerly struggling students are making a connection between their education and future careers, and students who revert to the traditional subsistence ways of the Yu’Pik culture have turned to more advanced technology to hunt, fish, and gather.

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Do you know of any schools that are delivering high quality learning to students despite technological challenges? Please share your comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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Washington Ed Tech Summit Recap

I had the opportunity to attend the Washington Ed Tech Summit in Washington DC last month to discuss and hear about ed tech policy trends, including the latest developments in the E-rate program. The summit featured speakers focused on policy under consideration in Washington and the specific impact of these policy trends on the schools and districts in individual states. There were two speeches that were interesting to me as I think about the implications for children in Alaska. I’ve highlighted a few key takeaways below.

ConnectEDucator

David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet, Innovation & Privacy, NEC and OSTP at The White House, and Doug Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), shared a program called ConnectEDucator, focused on professional development that is being introduced by the White House administration and is currently in the budget process to be funded for FY 2015. The program would essentially help educators leverage technology and data to personalize learning and improve instruction, and offer two things:

  1. Primarily, the initiative would offer competitive three year grants from the federal government for school districts to support professional development to improve student achievement through technology
  2. A smaller component, would be to support formula grants to enhance and grow ed tech capacity

This program is still in process, and how districts could apply is unclear. Ensuring the process didn’t negate rural schools and districts from applying was a hot topic. The grant could be used for open digital content delivery, tools including assessments, use of real-time data to inform instruction engagement with families and educator’s online training in rural areas.

The program sounds exciting, especially for rural districts in Alaska that would be good candidates for the ConnectEDucator dollars, but only if the program promotes rural districts in the application process. Currently, the ConnectEDucator will not move forward unless funding is approved, which could be a long uphill battle.

E-rate

Jessica Rosenworcel, commissioner, Federal Communications Commission, spoke about plans for revamping E-rate. She pointed out that in South Korea, students have high speed broadband and by 2016 all text books will be converted to digital formats. In Ireland all schools will have broadband speed of 100 Mbps and Finland is next.

Jessica stressed that the U.S. is falling behind and all American students need high speed broadband, no matter who they are or where they go to school. E-rate 2.0 has helped connect more than 95 percent of schools, but that still isn’t good enough.

The FCC is working to modernize E-rate to get all kids connected at the speed necessary to take advantage of the most cutting edge technology.
Jessica reminisced on the old three Rs of education: readin’, writin’ and rithmatic. But the FCC is planning on the three S’s for E-rate.

  • Speed. Jessica said that in the near term, classrooms need 100 Mbps per 1000 students, but the FCC is looking at the SETDA recommendations for long term, and that means that by the end of the decade 1 Gigabit per 1000 students.
  • Simplify. There is a lot of bureaucracy associated with E-rate and Jessica suggested simplifying the application process to cut down on administration costs. She would like to see applications due every other year.
  • Spending Smart. The FCC wants to spend the limited dollars available intelligently and phase out services that our outdated. In 1998 when the E-rate program launched, it had $2.25 billion in annual support. But that was when less than one percent of Americans had broadband and gas was a dollar a gallon. Jessica suggested that at minimum we need to restore the purchasing power of this program by bringing back what inflation has taken away.

It is clear that E-rate 2.0 is a focus for the FCC, but I’m looking forward to seeing details of the revamp and the implications for school districts in Alaska. We face a different set of challenges in our rural communities, but like Jessica said in her talk, all students need high speed broadband, no matter who they are or where they go to school. It is essential to the success of our kids. New tools are cropping up that students and teachers could leverage in education, but in order to take advantage, we must first ensure that all districts are equipped with high speed broadband.

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Are the high speed broadband needs of schools in your community currently being met? Please share your comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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