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EQUITY OF ACCESS - Findings and Recommendations

  • To realize the benefits of the new learning opportunities, all young people need to be fully connected, which means having access to adequate broadband, hardware and software, as well as to sites, services and tools required for collaboration, creation and research. They also need access to high-quality content and the literacy skills to support full participation.
  • Nearly all the country's schools and libraries are now connected to the Internet at a basic level as a result of initiatives like the federal E-Rate program.
  • As educational use of computers, tablets, smartphones, HD video, gamification, peer-to-peer networks, interactive telepresence and the other applications of the Internet have grown, so has the demand for higher-performance broadband connectivity. As a result, current Internet connections in schools and libraries are becoming increasingly inadequate to support individualized technology-based learning for all students.
  • Current metrics indicate whether institutions (e.g., schools and libraries) are connected to broadband Internet; metrics need to be redefined to indicate whether individuals within the institutions have adequate connectivity.
  • Since technology makes it possible to learn any time and any place, connectivity beyond educational institutions is also important. Yet, for various reasons, nearly one-third of U.S. households have not adopted broadband Internet service.14
  • As mobile devices become an increasingly important means for accessing the Internet, there is a need to ensure access to broadband wireless networks. As technology advances, so must our schools. So new upgrades of devices, software and other high-technology learning opportunities as yet undeveloped will require continual investment and upgrades.
  • Filtering policies that place restrictions on the applications, services and tools accessible in schools and libraries vary by district and community. While the intent is to keep learners safe, overly restrictive policies can unintentionally block high-quality content for learning. A student who can view Wikipedia has access to content, but a student who can't get to Google Docs or to a Khan Academy video on YouTube still effectively doesn't have the full promise of broadband. Filtering can cripple the potential of broadband in certain circumstances.
  • Those with disabilities and learning differences may need special tools to access and participate in online learning.

In order for students to pursue their interests online, they need to have access to the resources required for learning. This begins with having physical connectivity to the Internet through a reliable, robust broadband connection. It is through broadband that students can access resources around the globe, or an instructor on the other side of the country, or expand their learning to times and places beyond the classroom. Broadband is also a vital mechanism for accelerating innovation and for fostering faster, more affordable distribution of services, content and tools for teachers and students.

Simply, learners need hardware and high-quality content to support their learning activities. And they need the literacy skills to be able to understand and navigate the digital environment.

Schools (and other community institutions) need to provide these resources along with the support structures that will help students use them well. But since learning often takes place beyond learning institutions, access to these resources at home and at other non-school locations is also important. Fortunately, the penetration of key technologies has increased as they have become less expensive, more powerful and easier to use. But real disparities remain, preventing all young people from enjoying the benefits of connected learning. Thirty percent of U.S. households have not yet adopted broadband service. Access to digital technology is lower among specific groups in society, including minorities, those with less education, rural residents, the elderly and the poor.

The current level of connectivity in schools and libraries is largely the result of the federal E-Rate program. Launched in 1997, E-Rate was designed to provide financial support to enable schools and libraries to get online. The program provides discounts of up to 90 percent to help eligible institutions obtain Internet access and internal connections. Eligible participants include public and private K-12 schools as well as all public and many private libraries.

Thanks to the E-Rate program, almost every school in the United States now has some connection to the Internet. But the use of computers and other smart devices in schools continues to expand rapidly, and thus far, the E-Rate does not cover their acquisition. While computers were once restricted to computer labs, Internet access is now available for 93 percent of the computers located in the classroom.15 Overall, schools now provide, on average, one Internet-connected computer for every 3.1 students, with many schools adopting 1:1 models where every student and teacher has a device.16

As the use of computers, smart devices and the Internet has grown in classrooms, both in terms of the intensity of student use and the bandwidth requirement of the applications being used, the capacity of many of these links is falling behind demand. According to the Federal Communications Commission, “In response to a 2010 Commission survey of E-rate funded schools and libraries, half of respondents reported slower connection speeds than the average American home and 39 percent cited cost of service as the greatest barrier to fully meeting their broadband needs.” In 2012, a survey conducted by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) found that nearly 80 percent of schools indicated that their broadband connections are inadequate to meet their needs.17

Substantial disparities in connectivity also exist among libraries. For example, while more than 90 percent of urban public libraries had broadband connections of at least 1.5 Mbps in 2007, less than half of rural libraries had connections that were that fast.18 Among the many reasons this is significant is the number of families that rely on libraries as their primary venue for accessing the Internet.19 Although average speeds have almost certainly increased since then, a gap between urban and rural libraries remains.

In June 2013, President Obama announced his ConnectED initiative that set an immediate target of at least 100 Mbps service to most schools and libraries, with a goal of providing speeds of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) within five years.20 The next month, the FCC took note of the changing connectivity needs of educational institutions and launched a review of its E-Rate program with the intention of increasing support for higher-capacity broadband in schools and libraries.21

In addition, the bipartisan LEAD Commission has also worked for over a year to accelerate digital learning in K-12 education. Its five-point blueprint urges federal, state, local, private and philanthropic sectors to expand the use of digital learning tools and resources in schools.22

These efforts point towards greater connectivity for each student in every school, but governments have not yet readied funding of student devices, or for support of those divides. Learner networks extend beyond the school, so it is important that broadband connectivity extend beyond schools and libraries. Between 2000 and 2013, home broadband access to the Internet grew from less than 5 percent of all U.S. households to 70 percent, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.23 The overall growth in broadband penetration seems to have largely leveled off in the past several years, however, leaving nearly one-third of households with no broadband service.

And Pew found that significant disparities among different groups in the population still exist:

  • 74 percent of white households have home broadband access compared to 64 percent of black households and 53 percent of Hispanic households;
  • 89 percent of college graduates have broadband access at home compared to 37 percent of those without a high school diploma;
  • Broadband penetration is much higher among those with a household income (HHI) of at least $75,000 (88 percent) than those with an HHI of less than $30,000 (54 percent); and
  • 70 percent of urban residents and 73 percent of suburban adults have broadband compared to 62 percent of rural Americans.

3 Build an infrastructure that will connect all students in all of the places they learn.

Action G: Base the bandwidth needs of schools, libraries and other institutions not on the needs of the institution as a whole but on the collective needs of all learners that they serve.

When the first efforts were launched to connect schools and libraries to the Internet, it was typical for these institutions to have—at best—one or two computers per classroom along with a group of computers in a learning center and/or library.

Today, the number of access devices per institution has multiplied severalfold. Many institutions now have Wi-Fi capabilities that permit large numbers of individual devices to be simultaneously connected to a broadband network. The Task Force’s view of the future is a not-too-distant time when every student and every educator has a connected learning device, and possibly multiple devices, including laptops, tablets, smartphones and even wearable devices.

To fully realize the vision of the learner at the center of his or her learning networks, each learner will need sufficient connectivity to get access to the resources he or she needs at any time to meet his or her educational needs. Planning for an environment such as this will require a different set of calculations about the bandwidth needs of any educational institution, particularly given the high-bandwidth demands imposed by new online courses, multimedia content and more sophisticated assessments. School buses could even be equipped with robust connectivity to support learning in transit.24 Indeed, public “third places” tend to budget for at least one broadband device per customer, and private industry often budgets for two broadband devices per employee when planning for Wi-Fi.

Action H: Build innovative partnerships among the public and private sectors to bring broadband access to all learners.

The federal E-Rate program has been instrumental in providing a basic level of broadband connectivity to America’s schools and libraries. The Federal Communications Commission is currently in the process of reforming and expanding the E-Rate program to upgrade broadband to schools and libraries. The Task Force strongly supports the concept of E-Rate reform, as broadband connectivity to learners in schools and libraries is crucial to the vision of ubiquitous learning networks.

But private sector initiatives can also be helpful in expanding access to the Internet and reducing disparities. For example, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program provides low-income families with broadband service for $9.95 a month, the option to purchase an Internet-ready computer for under $150 and free digital literacy training along with access to educational resources such as the Khan Academy, which itself is free to all. In its first two years of operation, it has provided affordable broadband service to more than 250,000 households.25

Percentage of American adults 18 years and older who access the internet via boradband vs. dial-up.

Public-private partnerships represent another promising approach to expanding online access. Several communities have developed partnerships to make local Wi-Fi networks more widely available to students. In Forsyth County, Georgia, for example, the local school district worked with the Chamber of Commerce to create a directory of free Wi-Fi locations in the community. Participating businesses are given a "free Wi-Fi" static cling to display in a prominent location at their business. A middle school in Manchester, Tennessee, that has equipped all sixth graders with iPads has convinced local businesses to open their Wi-Fi hot spots to students to maximize the benefits of their new technology tools.26

Action I: Ensure that all learners have access to appropriate devices that connect them to learning opportunities through a wide range of options that include BYOD (bring your own device), leasing and cooperative purchasing strategies.

The idea that every student would have on his or her desk a portable device that provides access to learning networks is still a novel one. But a small but growing number of school districts have undertaken efforts to enable all students to participate in personalized and collaborative learning by providing each of them with laptop computers or tablets.

Mooresville Graded Public School District, for example, is the third poorest in North Carolina, but is one of the highest performing school systems. The district reallocated budgets to pay for laptops, connectivity and digital textbooks for every student. Dropout rates have fallen 50 percent, test scores have risen 20 percent and 85 percent of their graduates go on to college. Dr. Mark Edwards, Mooresville Superintendent, believes that all districts can afford to make a digital conversion by establishing priorities, aligning resources, thoughtfully re-purposing funds and looking for cost efficiencies as well as productivity gains.27

As a complement to these efforts, districts are also adopting “Bring Your Own Technology” (BYOT) or “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) policies, which allow students to bring devices from home for use in learning. But because of inequities in the availability of home devices and concerns over security and maintenance, these policies are not always feasible. In response, many districts are also purchasing the devices for their students. The math works for every student to have his or her own device. The schools will have to solve this problem, most likely, through a blend of BYOD and group purchasing by the school district.

A few years ago, Forsyth County Schools in suburban Atlanta piloted BYOD and began to allow students to bring their own laptops, phones and tablets to school—and put them to use. Speaking to a group of superintendents, Jill Hobson, Director of Instructional Technology, said, “You’re already BYOT, but you won’t admit it.”28 She was referring to the fact that, despite policies to the contrary, most students bring their own technology to school, but schools ask them to power down and pretend they do not. Every school is a bring-your-own-technology (BYOT) school, but only a few acknowledge and leverage the fact.

While the Task Force views these devices as critical components to supporting new individualized learning opportunities, we recognize that simply providing hardware is not enough to transform learning. As Jim Stigler, associate dean for research and innovation at UCLA Division of Social Science, has commented in reference to the Los Angeles School District rollout of tablets to students, “I would guess that 10 percent of success will be due to the iPad, 30 percent the software and 60 percent the teaching that goes with the iPad. As long as people think the iPad itself is the main ingredient for success, it will probably fail. But if we invest seriously in improving teaching and software, the potential is huge.”29

Action J: Provide pathways to high-quality content, courses and educational experiences through platforms, applications and curation efforts by educators, students and parents.

At present, it is not easy for students or educators to find the content and tools relevant to their needs. Some resources have been developed to help meet this need. A recent example is Software PhD, a website created by a college administrator that has been described as a “Yelp” for higher education software. Launched in 2013, the site allows participants to post ratings and discuss educational software products. The site’s creator, Mark A. Baker of Whitworth University, developed it as a way to balance sales pitches from software companies with feedback from users.30 Graphite is a website for preK-12 teachers developed by the nonprofit Common Sense Media to help preK-12 educators by providing ratings and reviews of apps, games, websites and digital curricula contributed by other teachers. The Federal Registry for Educational Excellence (FREE) is a site created by the U.S. Department of Education that includes a directory of over 400,000 learning resources organized by subject and by standard. Gooru is a search engine specifically designed to help teachers internationally to find high quality interactive learning materials. New services like RankU are helping students find online higher education courses, while GreatSchools is providing ratings and reviews of schools in local communities. But more mechanisms to guide users to the most appropriate resources are needed that are trusted, easy to use and widely available.

Action K: Develop appropriate and effective filtering policies.

As noted above, the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires schools and libraries that receive funding from the federal E-Rate program to implement mechanisms that will block content deemed inappropriate to minors. In addition, many states have similar laws that require filtering by schools and libraries.31 It is certainly true that the Internet contains a good deal of content that is not appropriate for young people and that, in the absence of protective measures, this content is just one click away for any Internet user.

But current filtering solutions are a blunt instrument that can restrict access to valuable tools for applications as well as objectionable content. This problem has been recognized explicitly in the U.S. Department of Education’s National Technology Education Plan:

Ensuring student safety on the Internet is a critical concern, but many filters designed to protect students also block access to legitimate learning content and such tools as blogs, wikis and social networks that have the potential to support student learning and engagement.32

The Task Force calls for fresh, creative thinking to resolve the problem of protecting children without overly restricting their opportunities to learn. It believes one of the best ways to elicit these ideas is through competitions that offer prizes for the best new solutions. This approach to stimulating innovation has not only been used successfully by the private sector (in competitions such as those sponsored by the X Prize, (, but also by government (see, for example, ( Competitions seem to be particularly effective in stimulating technical innovation. Consider, for example, the results of DARPA’s challenges to design a self-driving vehicle and to build more capable robots33 or the Netflix Prize for the best algorithm for identifying movies customers would like based on past preferences.34

Action L: Expand access to learning technologies for students with learning differences

Ensuring full access is also an issue for students with learning differences. These kinds of needs are not always taken fully into account by program developers, but technology can also offer them promising opportunities for full participation in learning networks. Currey Ingram Academy’s “learning commons” provides an interesting example of a public-private partnership to encourage collaboration among teachers and students. By empowering students to be critical and creative thinkers, it recognizes that every child learns differently.35

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