Bridging the connectivity gap

  • By Kelly Sullivan
  • Saturday, November 21, 2015 10:07pm
  • News

Less than half of Alaska’s K-12 students have what the Federal Communications Commission has determined to be proper access to broadband in their classrooms.

On Thursday, Education SuperHighway, a non-profit working to upgrade internet access nationwide, released a report entitled State of the State, showing how many schools meet the 100 kilobits-per-second per student goal, the amount necessary for digital learning.

“Alaska is the hardest state in the country to connect to high-speed internet due to its terrain, topography, and lack of infrastructure,” said Evan Marwell, Education SuperHighway CEO. “Across the nation, rural schools and school districts are just as likely to be meeting the minimum connectivity goals, but we do find that rural schools are paying more on average and are more likely to lack fiber (optic) access.”

Optical fiber is a glass commonly used to transmit data, and one considered by Education SuperHighway to be the most effective way to provide equal internet access to the nation’s students.The report included data from 6,700 school districts and 25 million students, nearly half the total in the U.S.

“It is intended to help governors and state leaders learn where their public schools stand and identify opportunities for action needed to connect all students to the promise of 21st century digital learning,” Marwell said.

Despite Alaska’s unique barriers, nearly all of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s nearly 8,000 students have the required access to internet.

“With the exception of two sites, Sterling Elementary and Paul Banks Elementary, KPBSD schools exceed 100kbps per student connecting to the KPBSD wide-area network,” said school district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff. “The two sites under the 100 kbps (per) student mark are currently receiving the maximum amount of bandwidth available within existing service provider facilities.”

The school district uses internet for Google Apps for Education, an online document collaboration, testing — such as the new state-implemented Alaska Measures of Progress standardized assessment ­— videoconferencing, and digital curriculum supplements, among others, Erkeneff said. Videoconferencing allows educators to collaborate over long distances, and connects students to additional resources within and outside of the school district, she said.

In the last five years, Kachemak Selo, Razdolna, Voznesenka, McNeil, and Nikolaevsk schools have been brought online, and Nikiski Middle-High, Nikiski North Star, and Kalifornsky Beach Elementary schools have received bandwidth upgrades, among others, Erkeneff said. Overall bandwidth has increased from 32 megabits-per-second in 2010 to 400 megabits-per-second in 2015, she said.

Administrators in rural school districts are paying more than twice as much to bring Internet to their students, Marwell said. They are also twice as likely to lack access to the infrastructure and technologies that are needed to keep up with growing demand for bandwidth.

“This is exactly why we conducted this study and issued the report, so that we can bring these challenges to light and ensure our states and districts know what resources are available and what the realities of their districts are; together, we can solve this,” Marwell said.

Education SuperHighway promotes the utilization of state and federal programs to offset the high cost of high-speed. By making more infrastructure more affordable, 20 million more students were connected to sufficient internet in the last two years alone, Marwell said.

The school district has been using the federal E-rate subsidy program since 1998, and has received $10 million through it total, Erkeneff said. Alaska’s “School Bandwidth Assistance Grant” was also utilized in 2014 and 2015, which benefited Susan B. English, Tebughna School in Tyonek, Hope School and Marathon School, all of which previously had less than 10Mb/s in bandwidth.

2015 was the first year the State of the State report was released, but is scheduled to come out annually, Marwell said. In the first report, the non-profit calls on Gov. Bill Walker to make digital learning a priority. Alaska is one of 13 states that do not have targeted funding programs that increase access to broadband for educational purposes, he said.

“Digital learning has been embraced by students and teachers across the country, but it can’t happen without first connecting all of our students to high-speed Internet,” Marwell said. “By working together to put a broadband foundation in place, we can ensure that every student, in every state has equal opportunity for a world-class education.”

The school district has not worked with Education SuperHighway before, Erkeneff said.

Reach Kelly Sullivan at kelly.sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com

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