Classroom connectivity gap closes

The annual State of the States digital education report from EducationSuperHighway says 99% of America's schools have high-speed broadband connections.

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In their State of the States report, EducationSuperHighway said they had largely achieved their goal of bringing high-speed broadband connections to every American school. 

The organization, which was created in 2012 with funding from the Salesforce Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sought to upgrade internet access in every public school classroom in America and said on Tuesday that they would close down their operations next August.

According to the study, 46.3 million students are now connected to the web, 2.8 million teachers have internet connectivity, and 99% of schools have access to fiber-optic connections. The cost of K-12 internet access has declined 90% since 2013 from a high of $22 down to $2.24. In 2013, 75% of classrooms had no Wi-Fi access at all.

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The report included reassuring statistics detailing their work digitizing classrooms while noting the extensive efforts and support of governors from both parties in all 50 states. In its five years of operation, the nonprofit has worked hand-in-hand with 75 governors in every state. 

"The classroom connectivity gap has been closed," Evan Marwell, EducationSuperHighway founder and CEO, wrote in a statement attached to the report. "Thanks to an unprecedented bi-partisan effort by federal, state, and school district leaders, supported by K-12 advocacy organizations, digital learning is now available in virtually every K-12 classroom across the country.

"Powered by the modernization of the E-rate program, matching funds from governors, and the incredible efforts of service providers, tens of thousands of miles of new fiber have been built to connect our schools to 21st century broadband infrastructure. Leveraging this infrastructure, school districts have taken advantage of a 90% decrease in the cost of internet access to make the promise of digital learning available to 46.3 million students."

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When EducationSuperHighway started gathering statistics in 2013, they found only 4 million students had access to broadband connections at school. This year the number jumped to 46.3 million. Throughout the life of EducationSuperHighway's project, America's K-12 public school districts have spent almost $5 billion to upgrade their Wi-Fi networks so that nearly every classroom has the kind of infrastructure capable of supporting one device per student.

In addition to their study, EducationSuperHighway created a website where you can see detailed reports on each state's efforts to bring greater internet access to their classrooms and how it stacks up relative to the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) connectivity goals. 

In 2013, the FCC said they wanted to reach a point where every school had 100kbps per student and that milestone was almost reached this year. The State of the States report tracks progress toward the K-12 connectivity goals established by the FCC and uses 2019 application data from the FCC's Schools and Libraries Program, also known as the "E-rate" program. 

The FCC decided in 2014 to update the E-rate program and break it down into three standards, which included bringing a fiber connection to each school, Wi-Fi in every classroom, and 100 kpbs per student. Last year, the FCC decided to beef up the last requirement, bumping it up to 1 Mbps per student in every classroom every day. 

Since that pronouncement, almost 40% of school districts, including 57% of America's smallest rural school districts, and 23% of the nation's 1,000 largest school districts have already upgraded to the new FCC standard. The report says 12 states already have 50% or more of their school districts at 1 Mbps per student.

According to EducationSuperHighway's study, public school districts requested $1.9 billion in funding from the E-rate program this year. Thankfully, the price of internet access continues to fall, and in 42 states the median cost of bandwidth is below $3 per Mbps. More than 22,000 school facilities were outfitted with new fiber optic cables over the last five years, bringing the FCC's goal of 1 Mbps per student within reach. 

Closing the digital divide in classrooms

"By closing the digital divide in the classroom, we're opening the door to new educational opportunities for millions of students across the nation. Digital learning isn't just a promise anymore — now, it's a reality. Now, state leaders need to work with service providers to create and make sure that school districts take advantage of opportunities to upgrade their bandwidth so students and teachers can use technology in every classroom, every day," Marwell added. 

"87% of teachers say they use digital learning in their classroom several times a week, three quarters of America's schools now have at least one device per student and more than 70% of educators say that high speed internet connections and Wi-Fi networks are significantly improving teaching and learning. As a result, technology is powering billions of learning sessions in America's classrooms as teachers find new and exciting ways to personalize learning and increase student engagement."

The report notes that teachers were innovating at a rapid pace as each school's digital capacity increased and quickly learned to leverage online applications to educate in different ways. Now, students are able to get more quick feedback and also become more involved in the pace of their own schooling. 

Nearly all teachers and administrators who spoke to EducationSuperHighway for the study said the increased internet access had a positive effect on their students and teacher's ability to convey information. Since the program started, more than 90% of school districts are providing software, devices and a digital curriculum with instructional technologists. Half of all teachers said they were now trying to incorporate coding and video into their lessons.

Administrators in Kansas' Perry-Lecompton school district said once they upgraded to 1.3 Mbps per student, children were able to build their own apps, create videos, take virtual field trips, attend web design classes, and gain access to digital guest instructors. Public school officials in Norwalk, Connecticut, said similar things about their turn to high-speed broadband, which allowed them to create the state's first Pathways in Technology Early College High School program.

They've seen a 100% increase in graduation rates since the program was introduced. 

"As we close our doors, we do so knowing that we have helped open the digital door to educational opportunities for millions of students," Marwell said in the report. "We sunset knowing that a strong E-rate program will enable school districts, service providers, and state leaders to continue upgrading the bandwidth in America's K-12 schools so teachers can use technology to power learning in every classroom, every day." 

The EducationSuperHighway report estimated that less than 800,000 students in under 100 school districts were not meeting the FCC's 100 kbps goal, with the majority of students located in areas that easily could upgrade and meet this goal without any increase in their district's broadband budget.

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More than 16 million students would be able to surpass the FCC's 1 Mbps per student mark within their school district's current budget, and in 3,883 school districts the 1 Mbps per student standard can be reached using the district's existing internet access budgets to access the same pricing that service providers in their area are already giving other districts. Almost 80% of these districts don't even have to switch service providers to take advantage of a deal that will get them to 1 Mbps without spending more money.

EducationSuperHighway's study adds that the FCC should take note of how successful their efforts have been and double down on them, increasing funding so libraries and schools can continue to upgrade wiring. More than 60% of school districts reported that they upgraded their bandwidth at least once since meeting or surpassing the FCC's standards. 

Last year the median bandwidth per student topped 670 kbps last year, a 32% increase compared to 2018 and the largest increase in the last four years. For the 1,625 school districts that are unfortunately located in places where there are no service providers offering cheap bandwidth prices, the EducationSuperHighway report said internet pricing trends show a continual yearly drop, giving them a bit of hope. 

States were also better off negotiating broadband prices because they could secure better rates than individual school districts. Statewide efforts were also more effective at making sure rural districts could get relatively cheap rates on par with urban and suburban schools. More than 15 states decide on broadband contracts on behalf of school districts.

Nonprofit to close

Marwell said EducationSuperHighway will "sunset" by the end of next summer but will spend the year working to secure high-speed broadband for the last 1% of students still left out of the loop. 

"EducationSuperHighway is a huge public, private, and nonprofit success story. I'm so proud of the team for its bi-partisan accomplishments," said Jonathan Kaplan, chairman of EducationSuperHighway's board. "However, the work is never truly done. We urge state leaders to continue working to ensure schools are keeping up with technological advances and ensuring our kids are well prepared for the future."

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