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).


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