Crossing the Digital Divide in Education
Saturday, October 15, 2011
By Christopher Haight
The expansion of broadband to rural schools is a critical step in eliminating the digital divide and ensuring students have access to the tools of the 21st century. Most importantly for students and educators alike, access to broadband internet services creates new opportunities and methods for increasing student achievement.
For educators, broadband can mean opening a world of new professional development resources. Many state plans for education reform specifically cited the use of various crowd-sourcing projects as a part of their plans for supporting effective teachers and principals in their Race to the Top applications. Applicants proposed items such as online banks of lesson plans, where teachers would be able to share, borrow, and adapt lesson plans with others in their state. These types of efforts fostered collaboration and communication by breaking down geographic barriers. Likewise, the Investing in Innovation program, targeted towards school districts and nonprofit organizations, embraced the use of technology-based efforts to improve resources for teachers.
Access to broadband also has a prominent role within the relatively young Promise Neighborhoods program that supports development of wraparound services targeted towards addressing socioeconomic influences on student success. The Promise Neighborhoods Program, now in its second year with $30 million requires applicants to address the expansion of and access to broadband services within the applicant communities in order to foster improved communications and collaborations among agencies and constituents.
In addition, broadband accessibility can also foster the creation of new tools that increase the use of evidence and data-based decision making in education - a key goal of many in the K-12 education sector. Cloud-based services or applications that analyze student performance data in real-time allow teachers to respond accordingly by identifying those students most in need of greater assistance or adapting their own lesson plans or teaching techniques.
The introduction of new broadband to rural schools also gives students the opportunity to utilize the tools and resources common to their generation. One of the most prominent uses is for distance learning projects, in which students are given access to learning opportunities such as virtual field trips, that would otherwise fall outside of their primary and secondary education experiences due to geography or fiscal challenges. Distance learning can also be used to support teachers for various aspects of training and professional development from a variety of different agencies.
While Congress eliminated the Enhancing Education Through Technology grant program in 2011, there are other opportunities for funding education technology projects. One such grant program is the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) program sponsored by EDUCAUSE, a national nonprofit organization, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The NGLC program supports the effective and promising uses of technology in education. Like the Investing in Innovation program, NGLC relies on data- and evidence-intensive applications that require applicants to have sound research and theoretical support for their proposals.
When looking to leverage broadband funding and other grant opportunities to upgrade education technology in schools, libraries, or elsewhere, it remains critical to remember to think carefully about your requests. The call for accountability and wise investments through grant funding is louder than ever. Funders at all levels remain acutely aware how important it is to fund applications with the greatest promise of success, not just those toting far-flung promises or fancy equipment.
When preparing applications, you should always look at the "big picture." Technology alone does not improve student achievement - it's still the curriculum, teachers, resources, parents, and other influences. A proposal for equipment that does not address teacher training, technical assistance, and development of associated curriculum has already omitted three key considerations that should accompany the introduction of any new technology.
The expansion of broadband holds much promise for underserved communities. However, the development of broadband infrastructure is just the first step. Realization of its vast potential requires a strategic approach to grantseeking and most of all, a thoughtful application of technology.