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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Our Homes are Cut Off from the Web Too

The lack of high-speed internet access for students has been the focus of a lot of attention recently. In June, President Obama announced the ConnectED program with the goal of getting 99% of students access to high-speed internet.

In addition, a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times by Ford Foundation President Luis A. Ubiñas asserts that every school needs access to broadband internet to ensure that children are prepared to succeed in our digital world. He cites some disturbing statistics on the inadequacies faced by many American children, which were also noted by President Obama’s call for reform.

And the situation is even worse for the students I work with in remote, rural Alaska. While today most schools are online, the Internet speeds in poor communities are so low that they cannot access most Websites or take advantage of the latest collaborative tools.

The proposed path forward for correcting this problem through ConnectED and according to Mr. Ubiñas includes:

  • Overhauling E-Rate to ensure sufficient Internet is in every school and library
  • Increasing consumer contributions to the Universal Service Fund to provide more E-Rate funding
  • Training teachers and librarians to advocate for digital education
  • Prioritizing broadband to a necessary part of our national infrastructure

I would like to take these proposals a step further. In order for children to become digital leaders in our increasingly global society they must be able to participate in a 24/7 learning environment. That not only means that they need access to fast and reliable Internet at school, but also at home. And they also need the technology tools at home to do so.

Programs that provide each student with a laptop computer to use at school and home, commonly referred to as one-to-one, have swept not only the nation, but are being implemented around the world. Over the years, K-12 education has established four specific goals around one-to-one laptop programs.

  • Increase academic achievement
  • Increase equity in access to digital instructional resources to reduce the digital divide
  • Increase economic competitiveness by preparing its students with 21st-century skills for the workforce
  • Transform the quality of instruction in the classroom to create a more student-centered classroom

Alaska has been a leader in one-to-one programs. The Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB) formed the Consortium for Digital Learning with the main purpose of investigating the potential of these devices to meet general one-to-one program goals such as developing 21st-century skills and preparing students for success in the global economy. Today AASB has over 100 one-to-one laptop school projects.

Join me at ISTE 2013 to learn more about one-to-one programs, specifically at the SIG 1:1 Annual Meeting and the SIG 1:1 Forum – 1:1 Guidebooks for Leaders. And let’s keep the recent focus on these necessary technology tools at the forefront of education discussion.

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