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).


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