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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SXSWedu Brings Digital Equity to the Forefront

sxsweduAre you planning to attend SXSWedu? And if so, what sessions are you looking forward to?

SXSWedu Conference & Festival (March 3-6 in Austin) recently announced its sessions, some of which are incredibly relevant to the issue of digital equity that we’ve been discussing, specifically in Alaska. Below are some of the ones I’m particularly interested in.

Vote for Education! Or Don’t?

Monday, March 3, 1:30 – 2:30p.m. – Hilton Austin Downtown Salon B – “We’ll discuss whether the world of politics is an opportunity to further education, or if education is too complex to be addressed in a campaign.”

Thoughts: Recently at the State of the State speech, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell made education proposals ranging from a digital teaching initiative to expanding charter schools and rural boarding schools. What are your thoughts?

What Keeps School CTOs Up at Night

Monday, March 3, 3:00 – 4:00p.m. – Hilton Austin Downtown Salon K – “Learn about key trends—allowing students to bring their own devices to preparing for online tests to bridging learning inside the classroom to the home, and more—that are driving the need for broadband and wireless in education.”

Thoughts: Technology is disrupting the traditional school environment, facilitating 24/7, connected learning to help students become digital citizens in this increasingly global world. But what about places like Alaska that don’t have the home connectivity to support it?

Online Education as a Passport for Learning

Tuesday, March 4, 10:30 – 11:30a.m. – Austin Convention Center Room 17B – “Moderator Frank Britt, Penn Foster CEO, is joined by three students who will share their stories on how online education helped them succeed.”

Thoughts: Again, technology does break down the traditional classroom walls making education available to students of all ages who would not otherwise have it. Alaska is a pioneer in leveraging technology to advance students in remote, rural environments. But without the infrastructure to support it, students in Alaska don’t have access to the same passport for learning.

Putting the Focus on Instruction, Not Assessment

Thursday, March 6, 9:00 – 10:00a.m. – Hilton Austin Downtown Salon F – “This problem solver will examine how to refocus the attention on students and their needs for technology to provide the best educational environment.”

Thoughts: Focusing on getting students bandwidth and devices for learning before worrying about testing makes sense.  This isn’t an either/or issue, but instead a necessity for total cost of ownership.  Bandwidth is the foundation to build from, and must be on the forefront for thoughtful implementation.

Want to learn more about Alaska’s unique relationship with Internet connectivity? Check out my blog post on the subject that I wrote for my Alaska E-Rate Blog Series.

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PEW Internet Study Demonstrates the Importance of Public Libraries in Remote Rural Communities

Last month the PEW Internet & American Life Project published some revealing statistics about how Americans value public libraries in their communities. I’ve highlighted a few statistics that jumped out at me, outlining the importance of libraries to rural communities like those found throughout Alaska.

  • 94% of Americans say that having a public library improves the quality of life in a community. For many of Alaska’s remote rural locations the library is the center for the community, providing access to the Internet, among many other benefits and services.
  • 81% of Americans say that public libraries provide many services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere. Many of Alaska’s remote rural communities cannot afford the high cost of Internet for their homes. The library is the only place they can access advanced technology resources.
  • 56% of Internet users without home access say public libraries’ basic technological resources (such as computers, Internet, and printers) are “very important” to them and their family, compared with 33% of all respondents. The library is not only there for the community, but for those that travel in and out of rural/remote Alaska.

PEW Internet_Library Impact

These statistics reinforce the value in programs such as Alaska Online with Libraries (OWL). Alaska launched the OWL program in 2011 to help bring equity for libraries across the state with an Internet/Video Conference network providing access for all Alaskans. This ambitious state-wide endeavor provided video conference equipment, computers, and bandwidth to improve the computing capabilities of public libraries. OWL has been funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska State Library. Recently, Alaska governor Sean Parnell presented his FY2014 budget for Alaska. This budget includes a line item for funding the OWL network so that libraries across Alaska will be able to continue to provide patrons and community members with access to the world. You can read more about the Alaska OWL Project and its impact on communities in my employer GCI SchooAccess’ case study.

Alaskans have come to rely on the libraries within their communities to connect them with the rest of the world. I’m happy to see that Americans in other parts of the country continue to find value in these important community hubs, particularly for some of the same reasons.

Want to learn more about Alaska’s unique relationship with Internet connectivity? Check out my blog post on the subject that I wrote for my Alaska E-Rate Blog Series.

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Alaska’s Unique Relationship with E-Rate: Part 4 – The FCC Must Consider Alaska Differently Than Most States

This is a four-part blog series about Alaska’s unique relationship with the E-Rate program. To view all blog posts within this series click here.

It’s been a hallmark week for E-Rate reform in America. On Sunday the FCC announced that it would double E-Rate broadband funding in the next two years. This was spurred by a White House initiative to promote broadband access in the classroom known as ConnectED, which will help schools connect to high-speed broadband, moving beyond basic Internet.

E-Rate reform will play a major role in how these funds get allocated. Some of this entails ending E-Rate discounts for outdated technologies like dial-up connections, but it also means a potential change in how E-Rate funds are disbursed. We need to take into account the needs of rural communities like Alaska to ensure equal quality of broadband across the nation.

Broadband networks have become the hallmark of modern day society, delivering high-speed internet connections that promote economic development in education, healthcare, and business. But what happens when one population of society is significantly disadvantaged? In this final installment of my E-Rate blog series, I would like to make the case that the FCC must give special consideration to Alaska, especially in its classification of rural communities, as it modernizes the current  E-Rate program.

Image via The Alaska Statewide Broadband Taskforce.

Image via The Alaska Statewide Broadband Taskforce.

Data shows that Alaska is at a disadvantage when it comes to broadband. According to the Alaska Broadband Task Force report, dated August 2013, over 21,000 households in Alaska do not have broadband.  More than half of the nation’s anchor tenant institutions (hospitals, schools, libraries) listed as having insufficient broadband capabilities are in Alaska. Due to this broadband depravation, the report states that 60% of rural community members choose to access the Internet from other areas in the community because the Internet they subscribe to at home is too slow. For most of rural Alaska, the anchor tenants, like public libraries, are the only place for community members to have access to the Internet, while many homes are left with satellite speeds that barely are above dial-up. The disparity between Alaska’s broadband adoption compared to more urban areas prompts the question of how this will be addressed in E-Rate 2.0. U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai take a good stab at this question in their recent op-ed addressing how to bring rural classrooms to the digital age.

To understand the goals of E-Rate 2.0, we must look back to the beginning of this federal program. E-Rate was authorized as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, with the foundational principle that “EVERYONE” should have access to affordable telecommunications regardless of their zip code. In the timespan of 15 years, schools and libraries that have leveraged E-Rate have made great strides in providing quality education and community access to online information and resources, while increasing broadband adoption. However, Alaska is still striving for this same digital equity.

The focus on E-Rate 2.0 reform coupled with President Obama’s ConnectED initiative to connect 99% of America’s students to high-speed broadband will have a significant impact on schools and we need to make sure the unique needs of Alaska are addressed and that Alaskan students are not in the 1%. Even with 90% subsidies, most schools and libraries in Alaska still do not have adequate bandwidth. Now is the time in history where we can help rural communities like those in Alaska cross the digital divide and get on the information highway.

Alaska’s unique rural environment is a part of this equation. There are approximately 500 public schools in 53 districts and about 65% of these school districts are in urban areas, while the rest comprise the Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs). Many of the schools in the REAA have less than 20 students. The vast geography and scale of Alaska has forced educators and community members to rely on technology to bridge the limited resources gap for teaching, learning, and information. Since E-Rate’s inception, funds have been used to build fiber broadband connections, as opposed to maintaining a baseline standard of service with satellite. A considerable investment would be required to get all of Alaska on fiber – an investment beyond what is provided by E-Rate and the potential lack of funding proposed in the overhaul. As private, public, and non-profit organizations work together to create a better E-Rate system for American education, they must realize that rural communities require E-Rate discounts in order to maintain adequate Internet access.

One solution that could help balance the growing demand with limited funding comes from my employer General Communications, Inc. (GCI). GCI responded to the E-Rate 2.0 NPRM with a proposal for creating Priority 0 for connectivity between rural communities and Tier 1 Internet access points.  “Establishing a Priority 0 to fund critical data transport from rural communities to fiber-based aggregation points in urbanized centers would help ensure that rural communities can obtain the support they need to be able to connect across long distances from their communities to the Internet.”  Priority 0 also provides a mechanism to allocate support for rural communities should demand exceed the E-Rate support cap.*

If Alaska loses E-Rate funding it will severely cripple the great progress that has been made thus far. Not only would the students and community members in the most remote, rural portions of the state lose the opportunities afforded by a potential fiber or terrestrial network; they would also not be able to maintain their current satellite networks. It would be as if someone turned off the lights; while the rest of the world continues to advance and prosper. Therefore, the FCC must take special account of E-Rate implication in Alaska and establish a Priority 0 for rural communities. 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.

*If you are interested in this issue of Alaska broadband, I invite you to read the official E-Rate 2.0 comments submitted by organizations such as The Alaska Department of Education and GCI School Access (my employer). These statements submitted to the FCC go more in-depth on the specific changes requested for E-Rate 2.0. 

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Alaska’s Unique Relationship with E-Rate: Part 3 – E-Rate Program Impact in Alaska

This is a four-part blog series about Alaska’s unique relationship with the E-Rate program. 

E-Rate is a proven, successful model for schools and libraries across America.  With the recent completion of the FCC’s response window for the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) on E-Rate 2.0, the conversation must shift now to bringing digital equity to EVERYONE, no matter their zip code.  The majority of comments reflect the need and support to grow the E-Rate support to $5 billion annually.  It is no surprise the current E-Rate demand is exceeding the current cap.

General Communications, Inc. (GCI) responded to the E-Rate 2.0 NPRM with a proposal for creating Priority 0 for connectivity between rural communities and Tier 1 Internet access points.  “Establishing a Priority 0 to fund critical data transport from rural communities to fiber-based aggregation points in urbanized centers would help ensure that rural communities can obtain the support they need to be able to connect across long distances from their communities to the Internet.”  Priority 0 also provides a mechanism to allocate support for rural communities should demand exceed the E-Rate support cap.*

The focus on E-Rate 2.0 reform coupled with President Obama’s ConnectED initiative to connect 99% of America’s students to high-speed broadband will have a significant impact on schools.  From an Alaskan focus, it would appear that the 1% will be Alaskan students and library patrons.  We must be mindful that a broad plan will not meet the unique needs for rural schools and libraries.  E -Rate must evolve to provide school districts and libraries in rural areas, with the necessary support they need to ensure quality education opportunities.  For most of rural Alaska, the anchor tenants (libraries and schools) are the only place for community members to have access to the Internet, while many homes are left with satellite speeds that barely are above dial-up.

How Schools and Libraries in Alaska use High-Speed Broadband Networks

In order for Alaska students and community members to have the same opportunities as students and patrons in more populated areas, they need access to similar resources.  Communities in Alaska that have access to high-speed broadband are able to take advantage of distance learning, virtual field trips, and digital literacy. Specifically, high-speed broadband has revolutionized education in Alaska by helping disadvantaged communities stay competitive and by preserving Alaska Native culture.

High Speed Broadband enables remote districts to deliver higher levels of education than the community could otherwise support.  For example, video conferencing can now connect students in one-room schools to highly-qualified teachers in Alaska and around the globe.

In addition, Alaska places a strong emphasis on preserving Alaska Native cultures.  The presence of high-speed broadband allows students to get access to quality education and maintain residence in their communities.  In the past, they would have to leave their communities for an entire school year in order to attend school.  Now, students stay and maintain their Native traditions and practices while maintaining access to the larger Alaskan education system.

Thanks to government stimulus from, BTOP and BIP, several companies have started long-term telecommunications projects throughout the state that are designed to drive economic development, thus improving education.  One of these projects includes, GCI’s Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska (TERRA), a next-generation communications network in Southwest rural Alaska that includes 400 miles of new fiber-optic cable and 13 new microwave towers that connect 65 communities that prior to 2011 were only able to connect to the Internet via high-latency satellite.  GCI continues its vision for TERRA,  in completing terrestrial connectivity to Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, and Nome, this month.  GCI is continuing to build out the network to Kotzebue next year.  TERRA was honored with the National Broadband Award by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) as the 2013 Community Broadband Wireless Network of the Year.

Similarly, Copper Valley Wireless’ Cordova microwave extends terrestrial connectivity from Naked Island, AK to the remote, rural community of Cordova, AK.  The project provides special access to the local telephone cooperative, as well as the interexchange carrier to provide high speed broadband to the residents.  Both projects enhance service to community centers, schools, medical clinics and public dafety organizations.

How has your community benefited from E-Rate? Please share in the comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

** Comments of General Communication, Inc., in the Matter of Modernizing the E-rate Program for Schools and Libraries, WC Docket No. 13-184 (Sept. 16, 2013) (“GCI Comments”)

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Alaska’s Unique Relationship with E-Rate: Part 2 – Connectivity in Alaska Explained

This is a four-part blog series about Alaska’s unique relationship with the E-Rate program. 

SONY DSCThere’s a reason why we call the rest of America “the lower 48” – Alaska is unique.  The state’s expansive landscape is sparsely inhabited with much of its population spread out over small, remote communities, many of which have no roads and are only accessible by plane. This presents an interesting challenge for the education system. Alaska’s constitution requires a school facility for all communities with ten or more students.  There are approximately 500 public schools in 53 districts and about 65% of these school districts are in urban areas, while the rest comprise the Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs).

Many of the schools in the REAA have less than 20 students. The vast geography and scale of Alaska has forced educators and community members to rely on technology to bridge the limited resources gap for teaching, learning, and information. In addition, the geographic landscape necessitates broadband to be delivered over satellite connectivity for many of our rural schools and libraries. While satellite technology continues to evolve, it is both expensive and limited in meeting the bandwidth needs of today’s global, mobile learning environments.

This is the fundamental difference between Alaska and the contiguous United States. Since E-Rate’s inception, funds have been used to build fiber broadband connections, as opposed to maintaining a baseline standard of service with satellite. A considerable investment would be required to get all of Alaska on fiber – an investment beyond what is provided by E-Rate and the potential lack of funding proposed in the overhaul. As private, public, and non-profit organizations work together to create a better E-Rate system for American education, they must realize that rural communities require enhanced E-Rate discounts in order to maintain adequate Internet access.

In the past few years, Alaska has been successful in building out microwave infrastructure throughout Southwest Alaska using funds via a grant/loan program administered by the Rural Utilities Services Broadband Improvement Program where 69 communities now have terrestrial Internet, not satellite. Telecommunications in Alaska has been slow to gain momentum with terrestrial infrastructure and we can’t afford to stop our progress now. As we continue to push broadband throughout rural Alaska into the Northwest, we will also need a reformed E-Rate system that factors in the unique challenges faced by Alaska.

How is your community uniquely affected by E-Rate? I would love to hear in the comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.

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Alaska’s Unique Relationship with E-Rate: Part 1 – The Digital Landscape in Alaska

This is a four-part blog series about Alaska’s unique relationship with the E-Rate program. 

The digital landscape for Alaska provides challenges and opportunities for its education institutions.  I have the distinct privilege and honor to work first-hand with schools and libraries across the state. My background in education, coupled with my telecom experience provides me with a unique perspective on this topic. According to the Alaska Broadband Task Force report, dated August 2013, over 21,000 households in Alaska do not have broadband.  And more than half of the nation’s anchor tenant institutions (hospitals, schools, libraries) that are listed as having insufficient broadband capabilities are in Alaska. In addition, the report states that 60% of rural community members choose to access the Internet from other areas in the community because the Internet they subscribe to at home is too slow. Despite digital inequity, schools and libraries have proved to be leaders in the use of technology to advance students and citizens in rural Alaska.

Our schools and libraries are equipped with video conferencing and wireless infrastructure.  Alaska’s schools were one of the first to adopt one-to-one laptop programs and have since implemented one-to-one with tablet devices. However, an investment in technology without access to the Internet no longer meets the needs for library patrons or students. Over the years, schools and libraries in rural Alaska, as well as other rural areas in America, have fallen behind in matching the growing demand for devices, applications, and cloud-based solutions with adequate bandwidth. Software applications, including video, have evolved from being server- or CD-based to being cloud-based.

E-Rate is one of the four categories of funding sources made possible through the Universal Service Fund (USF), administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). E-Rate was authorized as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, with the foundational principle that “EVERYONE” should have access to affordable telecommunications regardless of their zip code. The idea was that everyone would pay a small fee on their phone bills to assist those living in rural/remote areas where costs were significantly higher than urban areas. Schools and libraries are eligible for discounts ranging from 20% to 90% of costs for telecommunication and Internet services depending on poverty as assessed through free and reduced lunch programs. The cap for the program is set at $2.25 billion per year, though current demand is three times that amount.

Today, the E-Rate program is receiving a lot of attention because of the demand, the move to online assessments, more complex applications, additional devices, and cloud services. The FCC is in the process of creating E-Rate 2.0 and the news of E-Rate reform has also prompted President Obama to push for a 99 in 5 campaign to insure 99% of the students across America have high-speed broadband within the next 5 years.

The conversations, actions, and prospects of E-Rate 2.0 are critical to Alaskan education.  Per FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel’s comments, the majority of schools and libraries in America today do not have adequate bandwidth to meet the needs of students and patrons.  This is an ongoing conversation in Alaska as well.  Even with 90% E-Rate subsidies, most schools and libraries in Alaska do not have adequate bandwidth.

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