Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Gina Millsap (Part 2 of 2)

March 23, 2021

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Gina Millsap, retired Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) CEO and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

In your article “We All Need Broadband” [April 7, 2020], you mentioned that “some parts of our community don’t have quality, affordable broadband, especially in the rural areas of Shawnee County.” I’ve always been impressed by how you and your colleagues responded to community needs by setting up an entire online branch of the library to serve those who, living in rural parts of your service area, couldn’t easily visit a physical library building. Can you tell a story that shows how you and your colleagues overcame some of the challenges of Internet access to provide those online services?

There are a few things. TSCPL equipped bookmobiles as hot spots and has been providing technology training for the community for well over 20 years. What is somewhat discouraging is that the “Taming the Mouse” class is still offered. I say that because it’s still needed. And TSCPL installed about 170 public access computers in the early 2000s to ensure that people had the access they needed to communicate, apply for jobs, learn more about technology tools, and provide themselves with entertainment. I have become less enamored of these stopgap measures in the past few years. That’s because I think they’ve allowed other community leaders to think, “The library has this covered, so we don’t have to worry about it.”

So, a question—are you asking about challenges the library faced? Honestly, the big challenge for many libraries were two-fold: did they have the money to upgrade their technology and broadband services as needed and to invest in technology? Did they have the staff expertise to manage that technology and help educate their communities? TSCPL had both, and chose to make those investments. Many libraries didn’t have the resources to do that. 

Makes sense to me; thanks. Whose work in fostering broadband access do you admire—and why?

I’m appreciative of the work that SHLB [Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition] is doing and the fact that they are developing a strong coalition of key partners. They are giving a voice to public-sector needs that hasn’t existed before. I’m also appreciative of the work ULC [Urban Libraries Council] is doing with its Digital Equity Action Team that is working to educate and encourage library leaders to do more in this space than be service providers for the have-nots in our communities. There are a number of individual libraries in the U.S. and Canada that are engaged in excellent work—many of them as part of community coalitions. I’m more interested in those activities and think they will have a greater long-term impact than continuing to provide short-term services like circulating hot spots. Note I’m not dissing those efforts. Those are important because they are addressing immediate needs, but they’re not solutions. 

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

They should become advocates for universal broadband. They should hold their local- and state-elected officials accountable for improving access to broadband for all residents. They should participate in the reframing of this discussion as one of social equity, not technology. Thank the community leaders that are showing an interest, support them. Learn more about the issues—the technology, the legislation, the players in the public and private sectors. 

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?

I think the main thing is that this is a community, state, and national issue. It’s not about consumerism, or not exclusively about that. It’s about ensuring all citizens have the tools they need to thrive in their communities. I also don’t want to appear as if I’m viewing the service providers as the antagonists, although that can happen—especially if municipalities are considering becoming providers. It’s going to take strong public/private partnerships to make this happen, but elected officials must be knowledgeable enough to write better laws, and visionary enough to understand that, like roads, electricity, and water, broadband should be viewed as essential infrastructure.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Gina Millsap (Part 1 of 2)

March 23, 2021

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Gina Millsap, retired Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) CEO and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Our friend Maurice Coleman [a keynote speaker, trainer, and facilitator who also serves as host for the T is for Training podcast] has said that advocates and activists don’t necessarily “start out wanting to change the world. They usually start out wanting to change this…that one situation.” What was that “one situation” that first drew you to efforts to support universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning?”

It actually started for me in the early 1990s, when I had the opportunity to work on the COIN (Columbia (MO) Online Information Network) project. It was the first ISP in the state of Missouri and was a collaboration of the University of Missouri, the City of Columbia, Boone County, the local school district, and the library I worked for—the Daniel Boone Regional Library. I was head of computer services for the library and also became the head of technical and end-user support for COIN because my library had the management contract for it. I saw, very early on, the power of shared online communication and information with community networking and what it could mean for public libraries, local government, and the community. Later, we included small private telephone companies who were often willing to let us locate modem pools in their facilities and whose owners could see the potential of the Internet before the big service providers figured out how to make money on it. 

Can you tell a story that shows how lack of broadband access or lack of access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning made this personal for you or someone close to you?

When libraries first introduced access to computers and then to the Internet, it became clear that there was and would be a huge divide in our communities and in this country—those who had access to technology and those who didn’t. The phrase “digital divide” is pretty hackneyed now, but when I saw how many people engaged with the library for the first time, it was an epiphany for me. I still remember a gentleman in his eighties—Mr. Belcher. His son lived and worked in Japan, but he was seldom able to connect with him because long distance calls were so expensive. When COIN went live, he was one of the first people to sign up. He had a Radio Shack computer with a 300 baud modem. He would call me with updates on how he could communicate via email on a daily basis with his son. It literally changed his life. 

Also, when I realized that no matter how many computers we installed in libraries, in the ‘90s and early 2000s, it wasn’t going to be enough, especially when PCs were so expensive and complicated. So it wasn’t just one story, it was how people saw this, wanted it, and ultimately needed it. It also continued and strengthened the equity work of public libraries. One of the reasons I’ve worked on broadband planning and advocacy so much in the past few years is a concern that libraries have inadvertently contributed to the digital inequity with the investments we make in digital content that isn’t available to those who aren’t digitally literate or who can’t afford the equipment or broadband services. The pandemic put a harsh spotlight on how flawed our systems are and how inequitable they are. 

That raises an immediate question: what are some of those flaws and inequalities? 

From my perspective, the flaws are attributable to the fact that local governments (and many states) haven’t owned this issue. Most of them have left it to the providers, whose business plans don’t align with all community needs. So, the gaps caused by where you live, how much money you have, how technologically adept you are keep getting bigger. I think internet should probably be regulated like a utility and the goal should be universal access.

Public libraries tend to be gap fillers. By that, I mean that needs like access to devices and broadband, have been left to that one institution while it should be a goal for all residents. There’s also a huge need for technology literacy. Even students who have grown up with computers aren’t necessarily information literate. We’ve focused so much on the technology that we’ve neglected what should accompany the use of these tools—critical-thinking skills, civic engagement, and understanding of what it means to participate in a democracy. The tools have become the endgame instead of a means to an end.

There also needs to be more action at the federal level—and I don’t mean just throwing more money at the big legacy providers who own all the fiber networks.

How can we work together to overcome the flaws and inequalities you’re noting here?

Planning and evaluation of the quality of services should be community-based. People need to be viewed as more than consumers. Part of our job as citizens is to participate in our communities, our country. To do that effectively, you need equitable access to the tools. So part of it is reframing this discussion to talk about investing in ourselves and our democracy instead of just upgrading to the latest Apple watch or Samsung phone. 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Beth Holland (Part 3 of 3)

February 11, 2021

This is the third part of a three-part interview conducted with Dr. Beth Holland, Partner at The Learning Accelerator, Digital Equity Advisor to CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking), and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. Two articles drawn from the interview are available on the ShapingEDU blog.

What are some of the more difficult, long-term largest barriers you continue to see to creating universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning throughout the United States?

Beth Holland

I was at the last SHLB [Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition] conference in October of 2019. A researcher from Michigan made a great point: He explained that the state is literally solid granite and that you can’t easily put cable in granite. There are definite geographic barriers to overcome. The second one is really at a policy level. I am hoping that with Jessica Rosenworcel as acting FCC chair, maybe some of these can be addressed.

Currently, internet is considered a service and not a utility. Therefore, that’s how it’s regulated. There really isn’t the financial incentive or pressure to run broadband to every community—especially the hard-to-reach ones. There are some advocates calling for internet to become a utility so that the country can be wired in a fashion similar to the electrification project in the 1930s. Finally, and this is tied to regulation, we really have to remember cost. Even low-cost options could be too much for a family to afford. The argument can be made for internet to be considered as part of the life-line program that ensures phone access as a matter of public safety.

The learning part is a totally different question versus the access part. 

So, I think it’s important to remember that digital technology in education has really been around for centuries. Audrey Watters has a book—Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning—coming out soon from MIT Press. She traces this idea of technology back to Sidney Pressey in the early 1900s. I’m thinking about digital tools that really started to take shape and influence what could be possible with learning to the 1980s. Not only did people like Seymour Papert introduce tools like MindStorms [which inspired Lego MindStorms], but there were others, like Alan Kay, who advocated that students should be learning to control computers and not the other way around. However, technology has been slow to adopt at scale. In their book Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America, [Allan] Collins and [Richard] Halverson explain that there has always been technology in education, but digital technology fundamentally threatens the systems and structures on which schools and teachers base their identities. Basically, digital tools mean that students can learn anywhere, any time, and from anyone. This creates a real system of threat. For decades, technology has been that add-on that some kids might use. However, COVID has changed that and made technology almost synonymous to learning because of the need for remote/hybrid contexts. The real barrier is now what kind of learning will happen as we move forward. Since teachers have become more comfortable with tools, does that mean that they can now start to rethink instruction? There’s a ton of potential now that a lot of the actual physical barriers to access have been decreased (though still 12 million + kids unconnected), and some of the lack of familiarity reduced. I hope that education policy and district initiatives will continue to focus on helping teachers, leaders, and also broader school communities reimagine what learning could look like if these tools are harnessed to create more personalized experiences where students have agency and choice in how they demonstrate their learning and how their learning needs are met. 

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Nationally, there needs to be policy changes to make broadband access seen as a public good—like electricity or water. There also needs to be funding to support both school and home access for students. For an immediate thing to consider, CoSN, ISTE [the International Society for Technology in Education], and SETDA do an annual ed-tech advocacy event where educators receive training in the latest policy recommendations and then spend a day meeting with their representatives’ offices to ensure that the message can get through. It’s virtual again this year and also includes conversations at the [US] Department of Education and FCC.

Regionally, I guess this is tricky because regions are so diverse in this country. A lot of states have regional education groups. A big thing to consider is how regional groups can band together to have more collective bargaining power. Each regional group may have a different acronym (BOCES, LEA, etc.), but all can work together. I know that in Colorado, the regional groups file for E-Rate together so that they can get better rates to offset their costs.

Locally, I think it’s important to be aware of who does/doesn’t have access. Teachers may either over/under estimate the amount of connectivity that their students have. Matthew Hiefield, from Beaverton, Oregon, helped me write a post a while ago about questions to ask students. Teshon Christie in Kent, Washington made a great point about not only assuming students have access, but [about] the danger of assuming that they don’t. He’s found that some families prioritize access while others may not. His district has been very deliberate about finding out who needs support from the district instead of using a general metric like free or reduced-price lunch to drive assumptions.

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?

I think that there are two critical considerations. First, digital equity is incredibly nuanced and complex. Simply getting access does not solve the problem. It is also going to continue to morph as technologies change. For example, as AI becomes increasingly ubiquitous, there are a host of new considerations for school and community leaders. Second, this comes back to the empathy comment that you made earlier: any solution really needs to consider the context and community. What needs to happen beyond access and digital literacy to also address broader issues of media literacy and even algorithmic literacy? I’ve been thinking about the issues of Pandora’s box. We can open it and let things out, but if we haven’t considered the potential unintended consequences of throwing out access without helping students and adults fully develop an understanding of the implications and connotations, then the potential exists to further inequity and not address it. The NDIA has been having this conversation a lot lately, and I think that it’s an important one. 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Beth Holland (Part 2 of 3)

February 11, 2021

This is the second part of a three-part interview conducted with Dr. Beth Holland, Partner at The Learning Accelerator, Digital Equity Advisor to CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking), and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. Two articles drawn from the interview are available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Any tips you can offer [from Dr. Charlton McIlwain’s book on Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter and Dr. S. Craig Watkins’ work in The Digital Edge: How Black and Latino Youth Navigate Digital Inequality] to people who want to address those challenges concretely and positively?

Dr. McIlwain presents a historical narrative of the evolution of technology and of the digital divide. If you go back to the 1960s, a lot of technology was used for aggressive policing (aka, discrimination and criminalization of the Black community). He even connects the spread of technology in Silicon Valley to the spread of cocaine to crack in the 1980s in California. Additionally, he highlights the innovations of the (Black) Vanguard, the leaders who created a more culturally-aware version of the Internet that was eventually quashed by white influence and money. Being aware of that should drive decision-making and get people to deeply consider the unintended consequences of adoption and access.

This connects to Dr. Watkins’ work. Particularly in schools, implicit/ unconscious bias impacts how educators perceive student technology use. The white student is seen as innovative for the exact same behavior that could have a Latino student labeled “a hacker.” Additionally, teachers need to really think not just about whether or not students have access to devices and tools, but whether they feel ownership of those tools to customize them to meet their needs as learners. For example, can a student change the voice in the text-to-speech function or adjust the fonts? This makes a difference. Similarly, are the tools valued and respected at home and school? This is a two-pronged issue. If a student is comfortable using a particular tool or app at home, is it valued in school? The example from the book was that students liked using the Notes app on iPod touches because they could take their learning with them wherever they go. At the same time, teachers need to understand students’ home cultures. These same technologies could be viewed as “toys” or “not academic” in some communities. The teacher then has a responsibility to help communicate with families about the educational value of technology and connection—particularly for younger students who may not be able to do so for themselves. 

Thanks. Tremendous food for thought. I do want to dive more deeply into barriers to access and tips on how to overcome those barriers, but let’s backtrack for two questions to set some context. Here’s the first: Please tell us [readers of this interview] a bit about the CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) Digital Equity Initiative and the work you are doing, as director of the project, to promote universal broadband access throughout the United States.

CoSN started over 30 years ago, partly in response to the need to improve access. They initially formed to advocate for E-Rate, the funding mechanism from the Universal Services Fund [administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), per Wikipedia]. E-Rate funding helps schools and libraries offset their costs for Internet connectivity. Initially, it was just to get Internet to schools, then to wire them, then for Wi-Fi; now, there’s a coalition advocating that E-Rate should be allowed to help fund home access.  CoSN is a leader in this policy work alongside other organizations such as SHLB (School, Health, Library Broadband Coalition), SETDA (State Educational Technology Directors Association), and NDIA (National Digital Inclusion Alliance). Our Digital Equity project within CoSN helps to spread the word about these policy initiatives and also creates guidance/resources to directly help district leaders find solutions to digital equity challenges. This could be in the form of webinars, blog articles, briefs, and the Digital Equity Toolkit—which is currently being completely redone in partnership with The Learning Accelerator, where I work full-time.

Thanks. The second question: The newly-released CoSN 2021 “Driving K-12 Innovation” report exploring the use of emerging technology in K-12 education to transform learning highlights “Digital Equity” as one of the hurdles to learning innovations in that sector. Would you mind summarizing that section of the report and offer insights into what can be done to overcome that hurdle?

Confession: I haven’t read the final version. What I can say is that there’s language around the expanded definition of digital equity that the advisory has helped to craft. (I have an advisory of about 20 district leaders, researchers, and ed-tech folks.). A big piece is that we are thinking of digital equity as an iterative framework. First, there are digital foundations—literally, the devices and connections. Without addressing that, the conversation can’t really go anywhere. Once there’s access, then we can start thinking more about equity. What are the conditions for learning? Meaning, do students have access to accessible content that is multimodal? Do the students see themselves represented with and by the content (think cultural responsiveness)? Are students empowered to use the technology in creative ways so that they are constructing their own knowledge and demonstrating their learning in powerful ways? Finally, what are the opportunities afforded by the access. I’m sure that we can all think of high-tech instances where students are basically demonstrating low-level knowledge and skills. Instead, how are students experiencing more personalized, mastery-based learning that connects them to authentic contexts and helps them to really develop the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and aptitudes that they need for their future success? Make sense?

Yes. Thanks. Let’s dive back into the challenges facing us as we continue promoting universal broadband access. What are some simple-to-overcome barriers you continue to see to creating universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning throughout the United States?

I think the first part is to be really aware of geography and whether or not infrastructure is possible. In urban/suburban areas where the barrier is more often cost, then it’s a matter of creating affordable high-speed options. (There are lots of complaints that low-cost broadband isn’t enough bandwidth to do anything meaningful.) Solutions here could be allowing E-Rate to offset the cost for qualifying families, or working with housing authorities, communities, and anchor institutions to create more affordable solutions. A great example is Boulder Valley, in Colorado. The district created a public-private partnership with a local ISP. The company put towers on top of the schools to broadcast Internet, and families in need could then get access for free. There’s a profit-sharing agreement as well.

It gets trickier when the geography comes into play. In a blog post [describing the Boulder Valley project], a district in upstate New York [is mentioned because it] created a “neighbor-to-neighbor” network to connect kids. The ISP said that they could not afford to run cable to many houses because they are so far apart from each other. Instead, the district got a grant to find houses with connections and then put antennas on top of barns/grain silos/roofs. They could then broadcast Wi-Fi for up to five miles from one house to another. 

Hotspots can be any option when there is cell service, and some districts such as Ector County in Texas have started experimenting with satellite connections for really rural locations. 

Finally, some districts have come up with ways to create their own LTE/5G networks. They install towers around the community and can then provide Internet to their families. Michigan has a big project in partnership with Northern Michigan University and the surrounding K-12 districts. Green Bay, Wisconsin did this, and there are others.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Beth Holland (Part 1 of 3)

February 11, 2021

This is the first part of a three-part interview conducted with Dr. Beth Holland, Partner at The Learning Accelerator, Digital Equity Advisor to CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking), and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. Two articles drawn from the interview are available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s dive right into the substance of what you’re doing. What first drew you to the challenge of providing broadband Internet access for work and learning?

When I was working on my dissertation, I was taking a class in Disciplinary Approaches to Education. It had us examine our problem of practice through multiple lenses. At the time, I thought that the “problem” was lack of access to high quality professional development to help teachers transform education. (I dropped that, but it’s a different story). In looking at the problem through a sociological lens, I started thinking about the role of the digital divide. If teachers—and thus schools/students—do not have access to the Internet and technology, then why would they even think about using it in education? This was sort of a wake-up call for me. 

The literature that I explored touched on both the actual digital-access and also the emerging evidence of the digital-use divide—the finding that students in schools in underserved communities may have similar access to computers/Internet as their more affluent peers, but typically use that technology for more rote/remedial learning, test prep, and content consumption rather than in more creative and cognitively demanding ways. At the time, my dissertation advisor recommended that I not go in that particular direction with my research. However, the second that I finished my dissertation, I circled back around to it. So, since 2018, digital equity has become a primary research focus. 

Let’s take this down to the human/personal story level: how has lack of adequate Internet access and access to the tools needed to use the Internet for work and learning affected you and those you know? 

So, I am going to admit my privilege here. Where I am geographically located, I have full cell service and access to high-speed Internet. I’ve had a laptop, plus numerous other devices, since the late 1990s. However, I think the real wakeup call has happened in a few different instances. First, my husband and I like to do a lot of hiking. When we drive places, I’ve become incredibly attuned to whether or not we have cell service—not because I want to be online, but because I’m trying to get a sense of the magnitude of the disparity of access in a tangible way. We drove from Salt Lake City to Escalante National Park a few years ago, and I counted miles between cell signals and any place of business that might possibly offer Wi-Fi to kids. It made me realize how some possible solutions to the digital divide really aren’t feasible. Last fall, we were driving in rural New Hampshire with no signal. At one point, a Dollar Store was the only major business, and it was about 30 minutes to find a gas station. I saw satellite dishes in yards, so I am guessing there was no cable. I was thinking about conditions of schools and the feasibility of getting access. It made me very aware of the need for policymakers to take a ride and recognize the challenge that so many are facing right now to get access.

One last story: A few years ago, I was doing research in pre-schools as part of my post-doc. I got a text message on my phone that there was a new message in the medical portal from my doctor. The portal didn’t work on a mobile device, so I logged in when I got home (privileges #1-3: cell signal, home Internet, and a computer). Apparently, I was at high-risk for measles, and there were ongoing outbreaks at the time. I could schedule an appointment for a blood test to see if my vaccine was still good. Turns out that it wasn’t, and I needed a new vaccine from CVS. Everything was coordinated through the portal and took no time, but what about the person who didn’t know to sign up for the portal, who couldn’t access it, and who might not have the digital-literacy skills to navigate it? Understanding all of this has made me hyperaware of the digital-equity challenges—not just in terms of physical access, but also the necessary skills behind having that access.

What you have just said makes me aware of another overlooked aspect to the issue of promoting universal broadband access throughout the United States: the importance of empathy. That’s such an important starting point for any successful movement to increase Internet access.

Yes! I actually had a similar conversation with someone a few months ago. Too many assumptions get made about whether access in itself will solve the issues. However, we have to remember the diversity of this country. It’s going to be very different depending on the culture and context of each community. I was just reading a new report [Looking Back, Looking Forward: What It Will Take to Permanently Close the K-12 Digital Divide, January 27, 2021] this morning from Common Sense and BCG [Boston Consulting Group]. They touch on this idea that a barrier to adoption could be more cognitive than financial or geographic/physical (e.g., no service). 

Another point: Have you seen Dr. Charlton McIlwain’s book on Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, or Dr. S. Craig Watkins’ work in The Digital Edge: How Black and Latino Youth Navigate Digital Inequality? Both of them, in different ways, touch on the white narrative surrounding technology adoption. Particularly for non-white communities, adoption could look different. Universal access needs to be considered from a more universal perspective, and all voices need to be honored and valued in designing solutions (e.g., stop saying that underserved communities could get served with refurbished devices that the white/affluent community doesn’t want.).

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Lev Gonick (Part 2 of 2)

December 10, 2020

This is the second half of a two-part interview conducted with Lev Gonick, Chief Information Officer, Arizona State University, one of the driving forces within the ShapingEDU community, and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview will be available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s move to another area where you’ve been active—the annual Broadband Communities Summit. Would you tell me how you first joined that summit and describe what you and your colleagues do there each year?

Lev Gonick

Before there was Broadband Communities, the same collection of national leaders were organized under the name BroadBand Properties. They generously awarded me a national recognition for our community vision of connecting the community in Northeast Ohio in 2011. Thereafter, I was invited to share some of our work at the annual meetings and met a number of broadband leaders who were working on what would become known as the National Broadband Plan and the National Broadband Coalition. I had an opportunity to support both efforts through my experience at Case Western Reserve and our work at OneCommunity, which later became DigitalC.

Thanks for so nicely connecting the dots there. Would you mind describing the panel discussion and any other presentations you were involved in during the summit this year?

Jim Baller, one of the nation’s foremost legal authorities on broadband, has convened a “blue ribbon” panel each year on Economic Development at the Broadband Communities conference for at least the last eight or so years. I have had the pleasure of being the moderator for that panel for most of those sessions. The topics typically include a review of where we’ve come from over the past year, and the opportunities and challenges ahead. This past year, as we were remote, Jim chaired the panel and I was happy to share some of the great work that we are doing at Arizona State University (ASU) on economic development and educational attainment by leveraging community networking partnerships.

Obvious follow-up: what is some of the work you’re doing at Arizona State University?

2020, for all the tragedy of COVID and the toll of human life and collective anxiety, is the year that universal broadband access moved from being a quixotic call in the wild to a near table stakes reality, especially for education needs. At ASU itself, we have provided thousands of laptop and hotspot loaners to students in need, including hundreds of students from American Indian reservations in rural Arizona. We have also worked to develop a coalition of partners working on digital equity including incumbent providers, new entrants, community anchor institutions like the State Library, healthcare organizations, K-12 school districts, the Maricopa Community Colleges and, of course, the remarkable breadth of talent across ASU itself. We have also worked with key education broadband network organizations, like the Sun Corridor Network, which provides network connectivity to universities, colleges, and schools across the state. Recently, we started working with cities and the State government to align policy objectives to integrated network architectures to the priorities and needs of the community, as the community itself has articulated. What took a decade in Northeast Ohio is happening here in Arizona in under a year. The big difference is COVID-19 and the realization that broadband being provided to advance remote K-20 learners across the state, especially in our inner cities and rural communities, can also be used for health and wellness needs, next generation workforce development and skills, business attraction, and economic development. That has always been the promise. Now we are seeing the coalition coming together in unprecedented fashion. ASU is a strong and capable partner, and we are advancing the needs of Arizona in alignment with our mission.

As we continue making that transition from “a quixotic call in the wild” to positive results, how optimistic are you that the current situation will continue to lead us on a path to universal broadband access throughout the United States? 

If not now, when? If not us, who? This is our time and our calling. There is strong non-partisan support across most (but not all) of the actors from policy to providers, to community interests. I am bullish that we will see significant progress in the next calendar year.

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

There is a role for everyone interested in and committed to broadband equity. There are personal and organizational investments of not only cash, but also equipment, policy and community coalition building, legal work, broadening an understanding of community needs and, of course, volunteering to support the orientation to and education of the more than 30 percent of Americans who do not have access to nor use the Internet. Something for everyone. The regional and national angle is about identifying existing forces working to address access, equity, adoption, and use and supporting them, whether those are libraries, community centers, the national coalition digital inclusion and so forth.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Lev Gonick (Part 1 of 2)

December 10, 2020

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Lev Gonick, Chief Information Officer, Arizona State University, one of the driving forces within the ShapingEDU community, and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview will be available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Arlene Krebs, during our recent interview/conversation about efforts to foster universal broadband access throughout the United States, mentioned your longtime interest in the topic. What first drew you to broadband access as a challenge you wanted to help tackle?

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Lev Gonick

In 1987, I helped my friend Rob Borland from the University of Zimbabwe establish MangoNet, an early FidoNet network in Southern Africa providing connectivity to rural healthcare providers in Zimbabwe through GreenNet and WorkNet—all part of the pre-commercialization of the Internet. My wife and I managed to bring in 1440 baud modems which were installed at the Swiss Embassy in Harare. For four years, from 1990-1993), I took a group of students from across Canada and the United States to Zimbabwe for intensive study and non-governmental experiences. We continued our work with MangoNet, which eventually became HealthNet. Thereafter, I realized how important connectivity was both for health and wellness, as we were working on the detection of tuberculosis (TB) as an early indication of AIDS, but also AIDs education using early Internet protocols. When I started working in California in 1995, I took my learnings from Africa and began thinking and working on connecting parts of Pomona, which were on the “wrong side of the tracks,” with poverty, low education attainment, deteriorating public housing and little to no Internet. That marked the beginning of my 25-year effort to contribute to Connecting the Unconnected.

Any other early lessons you, Rob, and those students learned about the advantages and challenges of broadband access from the experience you just summarized?

The most important lesson I learned was the importance of designing and building coalitions of the willing. MangoNet was built with support from both Canadian and Swedish International Development agencies, donations from volunteers like me and my students, and trusted relationships in communities being impacted.

Watching your TEDx talk from 2011, I was struck by themes that seem to run through much of your work, not the least of which is the need for community and the “building of coalitions of the willing” you mentioned. How are you seeing broadband access—or lack of access—support or hinder the strength of the communities in which you work?

There is a mixed reality facing unconnected communities. During my time in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, I worked with homeless shelters, public housing families, low income housing projects, and groups of returning vets. For some, there was a deep interest and desire to take advantage of the Internet access we working on with OneCleveland, that begot OneCommunity, and then/now DigitalC. For others, there was an equally deep suspicion and profound distrust of all things digital and Internet. Many individuals believed that the Internet was part of the surveillance state, to be avoided at all costs. We worked on reducing the well-placed fear and distrust by partnering with those individuals and organizations that were trusted by those involved. We brought doctors to the community members to meet and then invite them to continue remote doctor visits online. We brought community financial literacy volunteers to the community and invited them to do the same online. Most profoundly, once we provided Internet access to those in our service area, without any promotion on our part, their kids or grandchildren found their way to visit. We traced packet routes and found that the first wave adoption in public housing, for example, was from grandma’s public housing kitchen to the local school district. These are important elements in building the foundations of a sustainable approach to netizenship.

That really takes us to the heart of what Arlene described—rethinking our approach and making a transition from referring to this as a “digital divide” and, instead, looking at it as a “social justice divide,” and so much more. Building upon what you just said, let’s humanize this even more: can you tell a specific story about how someone in Cleveland was positively affected by the work Digital C was doing or continues to do in Cleveland?

There are hundreds of stories, Paul. Custodial staff at the Cleveland Clinic found themselves with digital skills after completing classes, working themselves from minimum-wage jobs to medical-records-entry positions. This upskilling represents a profound change in the arc of both the worker and their family’s life prospects. We worked with workforce development teams to take young people who had timed out of the justice system and provide them with certifications for digital technology skills, which supported job placement opportunities with great success. We worked on pathways through coding camps to new economy jobs. Men in some of the largest homeless shelters in Ohio learned how to use the Internet to apply for public housing and began to regain their way forward. We worked with men and women re-entering society from prison to provide them with Internet access to prepare them for relevant skills for workforce opportunities. All of these efforts were about coalition building and supporting partners and partnerships in the community.

Anything else you want to add about Digital C in terms of how it serves as a positive example for anyone interested in promoting universal broadband access throughout the United States?

DigitalC is not only into workforce development. Under the leadership of Dorothy Baunach, who succeeded me as CEO (and who was on the Board throughout my time), [DigitalC] continues to expand broadband access, bringing network connectivity, to tens of thousands of households. She and her team have done a remarkable job, partnering with the Cleveland Council on Digital Equity and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, with a particular focus on providing connectivity during COVID in 2020.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Intergenerational Leadership With Natalie Miller (Part 2 of 2)

November 13, 2020

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Natalie Miller, a systems engineer with Booz Allen Hamilton, active member of the ShapingEDU community, and a University of Maryland graduate student. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Switching gears, has broadband access been an issue for you and your colleagues in online learning environments?

In a work and personal setting, yes.

In a personal context I have mainly just had connection issues on different days that prevented me from getting work or school done online. It is amazing how much we rely on these connections and how much stops when they disappear.

The hardest situations I have heard today are the power outages in Los Angeles county. The power companies in the area keep shutting off power because of the risk of downed polls and fires, but every time there is a power outage, it sets students and teachers a day behind, keeps individuals from working, and takes away connections for everyone in those areas. At the end of the school year, students are going to be in classes much less than other areas because of this situation, meaning they may be behind other students and may not be meeting the mark as often as other districts.

Seeing how broadband can affect an individual so dramatically shows how essential it is for everyone to have equal opportunity to resources, and how stressful not having these resources could be. I actually took the train up the coast this past weekend, and I know I was stressed when my call was cut out for five minutes! With public locations including libraries and Starbucks being closed for a period of time, it was even more difficult. 

During the pandemic, having outdoor Internet cafes, or opportunities to receive more reliable, battery operated/remote access equipment are two ideas that could be helpful.

One last switch to hit a topic that clearly is of interest to you: I know you have a long-standing passion for and impressive involvement in advocating for open education resources. Care to add anything more to what you’ve already said about how you were drawn to that topic under the tutelage of your dean, and some of the work you’re doing or have done?

Open Education is the future of education, and it can teach everyone so much. In times like the pandemic, creating open materials could help to foster the communities everyone misses, and help individuals to gain development or show progress from opportunities they may have lost. Today’s emotional climate has been so unstable; by working on open publishing or assisting on making materials for students, individuals can provide the assistance and compassion that these students need in times where funds and emotions are tight.

Natalie Miller

From my experience, groups like College of the Canyons Open Educational Resources and ShapingEDU have been some of the most positive and supportive communities I have been a part of, which is why I continue to come back and be a part of them. The synchronized mindset of wanting the best for others, and for the community is what drives them, and that is honestly the type of communities America and the education system need right now. Education will always be the future, and supporting the students in the system is how to support the future.

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover regarding learning, leadership, broadband access, or open education resources?

“How would you advise someone to become a leader in education?” 

One of the most unique things about education is how many different individuals are involved. In the educational community, there are almost no limits to the number of backgrounds, races, specialties, ages, genders, or any other identifiers that exist, but with all this diversity I want to remind everyone that you can be a leader, especially in education. 

“How?”

Find what you are passionate about. Surround yourself with individuals that will support you. Make a plan. Think about what you see that needs to be improved. 

When I just started school, I made the mistake of thinking I was just there for the degree and all I needed to do was show up to classes. When I started doing more than that, I became more than that. When you become passionate about something, like education, you should learn about it enough that you have no doubt in your mind that you are an advocate, and then people will listen. 

Being a leader is also listening. Once we all start listening to each other, we can all lead each other to better systems and processes that will drive us toward equality, equity, and opportunity for all. 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Dianne Connery (Part 1 of 2)

October 6, 2020

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Area Library (in Texas) and a ShapingEDU colleague who has been a long-time proponent of universal broadband access, particularly for those in the community she serves. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s dive right into the substance of what you’re doing. What first drew you to the challenge of providing broadband Internet access for work and learning?

Dianne Connery

Working in a rural library, I talk to people every day who struggle with not having access to broadband. Their stories inspired me to work to improve conditions. In particular, I saw how young people do not have the same experiences and opportunities as kids in the suburbs and urban environments. I raised my kids in cities, and they were exposed to up-to-date technology. Many of the families do not have broadband in their homes, and parents are not tech savvy. The school system is struggling to provide up-to-date technology and training as well. It is not uncommon for teachers to lack access to broadband in their homes. I want young people to be on a level playing field when they graduate from high school.

Much of what I read and hear from colleagues focuses on the learners and on employees. You’ve raised an interesting part of the problem by mentioning the teachers and their own lack of access. Is the library doing anything to help instructors?

We were able to provide hot spots to some of the teachers although that is not a viable solution for some areas. The library recently received a $25,000 TSLAC [Texas State Library and Archives Commission] grant to provide internet in 40 homes. Teachers will be included, and the remainder are low-income families. A pending $232,000 IMLS [Institute of Museum and Library Services] grant will provide home internet for an additional 85 homes. This is an EBS spectrum dedicated to education. I am working closely with a local fixed wireless internet provider (TekWav) to find funding to build infrastructure that will eventually cover every student and teacher in the county.  On the digital literacy side of the issue, the library has provided access and training to the teachers/students to use our databases. This week I started a learning circle that is a group learning experience for Google Drive Essentials. I’m hoping to support some of the teachers to work more efficiently with available technology.

You’re opening a very interesting door here for readers who are interested in how to take a step-by-step approach to addressing even the smallest pieces of the broadband-access challenge, including the question of funding. Based on your experience pursuing and obtaining grants, what simple steps would you recommend for those who don’t know how to identify funders and create successful funding requests?

Much of our success is a result of building relationships with people/organizations who share the same goals. Especially since COVID-19, I’ve been actively participating in weekly calls where I am connecting with others who are working towards universal broadband. One helpful call is Gigabit Libraries Network. Through being on that call, I was invited to be a sub-awardee on a large global grant proposal that used different approaches in different locations as pilot projects. Ultimately, we did not receive that award, but through the relationship building, Gigabit Libraries Network emailed me and asked if I would like funding to deploy neighborhood access stations. They provided funding for three neighborhood access stations which are in the process of being constructed now. Additionally, they connected me with the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center [ITDRC]. ITDRC deployed a mobile Wi-Fi trailer to a parking lot outside of town in an area with limited connectivity. A few weeks ago, ITDRC installed a hot spot at a bait and tackle shop outside of town in an area with a lot of school kids who don’t have Internet at home. So, all of that happened as a result of just talking with other stakeholders. Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition is also helping me understand the whole issue from a legislative/advocacy perspective. Hopefully, the work we are doing there will result in federal funding to make things happen. So, just talk to people, and one connection leads to another. If you connect to the right person, the funding follows.

 Among the gems in the answer you just provided is this one: “..we did not receive that award, but through the relationship building…” Any thoughts to prospective fundraisers about how to react to the word “no” in response to a request for funding?

I give myself one day to be disappointed, and then [move] on to the next thing. Usually we have several grants in the pipeline at any one time, so we are already focused on the next horizon. Personally, I have also had the good fortune of being a grant reader for two organizations and have learned a lot from being on that side of the equation. Sometimes there is something particular the funder was looking for that, through no fault of your own, doesn’t match. It has helped me be a better grant writer. Also, I have learned to write case statements so that I am able to use content in future grant applications so the work was not wasted. 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Arlene Krebs (Part 2 of 2)

September 8, 2020

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Arlene Krebs, a ShapingEDU colleague who is consulting in the arts, education, and technology and was honored as a California Broadband Champion in 2014. Arlene and I serve together as members of the organizing committee for ShapingEDU’s “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s stay on Loaves, Fishes and Computers for a moment. What role did you play in establishing/nurturing it?

I have worked hand-in-hand with the Founder and Executive Director [Christian Mendelsohn]. He came to my University office in 2011 to ask for advice on funding and grant writing. (I am the author of four editions of The Distance Learning Funding $ourcebook: A Guide to Foundation, Corporate & Government Support for Telecommunications and the New Media—last edition was 2000, so you can see the “old” references to new media). So, Christian asked for my help. I began with the first Board of Directors—I have served on nonprofit boards for 40 years now—and I began grantwriting for LFC. Since 2011, I’ve helped bring in nearly $700,000 in funds to support his organization, which has kept it afloat. Since SIP [sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic], we’ve distributed over 1,500 computers to those in need—low-income families, seniors, individuals, veterans, people with disabilities. I just completed eight grant applications for Loaves, Fishes & Computers, totaling $149,500 in requests for our work, of which we’ve heard from two funding agencies, awarding us $50,000 (our request and its maximum allotment) to distribute even more computers.

Another aspect concerns my work with the Central Coast Broadband Consortium—which I helped to found—and, being part of the statewide initiatives to close the digital divide, and the resulting grant opportunities through California’s Public Utilities Commission and also the state’s Broadband Council.

So many lovely threads to follow here. Let’s take this down to an individual level. Would you mind telling a success story in terms of how Loaves, Fishes, and Computers affected one participant or one participant’s family?

Hold on: I will cut and paste a recipient’s testimonial.

Fantastic! Thanks. I do want to get us to the current situation and how it’s giving us opportunities, but first want to get back to the Central Coast Broadband Consortium connection.  “When people want to find out what’s happening on broadband in Monterey County, they call Krebs,” CETF [California Emerging Technology Fund] President and CEO Sunne Wright McPeak wrote when you were recognized as a Broadband Champion in 2014. What were some of the most rewarding experiences you had that led to that level of recognition among your peers?

Founding the Wireless Education & Technology Center, organizing the Wireless Community & Mobile Users Conference more or less annually from 2003-2015, in which we gathered some of the true pioneers in the field of WiFi, Broadband, and Applications who represented the tech, business, nonprofit, and education “industries,” and who envisioned what policy, financing, technical challenges and more to overcome to make nation-wide broadband a reality. Also, I was invited by Cisco in 2004 to attend its Global Education & Broadband conference in Stockholm and Oslo (convened during the same time as the Nobel Prize ceremonies; Lev Gonick was another US representative of 10 of us, and I the only woman). At this summit, I learned about how government initiatives, funding, policy, and support in other countries were solving these issues, but not here. In the U.S., we have private companies providing infrastructure and services, so without private and some public sources of monies—in grants and investments—broadband infrastructure has lagged here. So, in 2004, Stockholm was connecting all of its public housing to broadband, Portugal had a nation-wide plan, Ethiopia was seeking ways to provide city-wide access etc. It opened my eyes to the possibilities—and inspired my work and commitments.

The ShapingEDU “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative clearly has grown out of the challenges we’re seeing as learners across the country—and those facilitating their learning—have made a sudden pivot from mostly-onsite to primarily online learning in an incredibly short period of time. What opportunities do you see this shelter-in-place period providing for those supporting universal broadband access throughout the United States?

Over the past few weeks, there have been numerous articles in our local press and nationally about this persistent challenge of providing the tools and the connectivity to those without access. It is especially potent now where “remote learning” is at the forefront of the national discussion. How over 700,000 students in California alone do not have adequate tools or connectivity, how in our Monterey County 17,000 students of 78,000 K-12 students, do not have access. So it is a two-fold dilemma. The first is the economic, geographic, racial, social justice and digital divide; the other side of the coin, so to speak, is access to education (as well as access to health, social services, government & employment resources) on the Internet. As for distance learning, as I mentioned, I’ve been involved in this since the early 1980s with the first nationwide educational satellite networks, to two-way interactive videoconferencing to today’s online arena, and am a founding member of the United States Distance Learning Association, a nonprofit organization that brings together the business, government and education (K-12, higher ed, lifelong learning) arenas.

I used to travel this country teaching about distance learning, the professional development that’s required for K-12 teachers and higher ed, the tools that are necessary, the time and money commitments, the assessing of the skills that a learner/student needs to bring to the table, so to speak, to participate fully and effectively. What we have now is a “hodge-podge” emergency-laden response, so I am glad and grateful these issues are at the forefront, but concurrently distressed that we have 1) not solved the technology and broadband infrastructure issues and 2) that distance learning potentials are being met in a haphazard, uncoordinated manner that is leaving many students at the wayside—either turned off to what their teachers are so desperately and heroically trying to provide without proper professional development and the use of readily available curricula and distance ed resources—or students who are excluded because of no technology or access.

Yes, the issues are glaringly at the forefront right now. However, with the uncertainties festered by the global pandemic and the global economic downturn, I fear that broadband and technology access may be pushed aside once again for those who are not empowered. Broadband will continue to be provided for those in urban areas and for the workers of global and national corporations/agencies—but not for those who need it, too. 

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Oh, this is too long a response, but: 

  1. Learn what’s going on in your region. Who are the service providers, how can local government negotiate with them to provide access to your community?
  2. Ditto, research which organizations are actively working on these issues, school districts, county offices of education, libraries, local business community that requires broadband to survive and expand.
  3. At the state level, find out what policy and funding the state is offering. Does it have a broadband policy? Who is overseeing this—and, by the way, just about every state does have a policy—how can you get involved?
  4. At the federal level, see what the FCC is doing—its National Broadband Plan—what does its state, what is its status?
  5. Learn what organizations involved in these issues are doing—for example, the United States Distance Learning Association, COSN [the Consortium for School Networking], ISTE [the International Society for Technology in Education], Silicon Valley, the Wireless Communications Alliance here in California, these are examples of the kinds of government, business, nonprofit, education, telecom providers are doing. For example, Comcast, AT&T, and Spectrum Charter each have initiatives to provide monthly low-cost Internet (generally $10-$15 per month).

In other words, research, explore, involve yourself. Collaborate, Cooperate and Activate!

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


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