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).


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