New Marlborough — I am a mother of three elementary age children and a transplant to this area by happy choice with a background in business, technology and education. There is a semi-interesting story of how I navigated from one to the other, but for this article’s sake an opener informing why I feel equipped to talk about the need for Wired West to become a reality in many of our Western Massachusetts communities from an educational standpoint. This article will profile examples specific to the school district in which I reside – the Southern Berkshire Regional School District — but please remember that communities throughout the Berkshires and Western Massachusetts are sharing similar experiences.
Phrases like “connectivity gap” and “digital divide” get used when discussing the state of Internet connectivity in rural areas. In January 2015 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed its definition of “high speed internet access” from 4 Mbps (megabits per second) to 25 Mbps due to the ever- increasing demand for data on networks. In the Southern Berkshire Regional School District (SBRSD) three of our four schools connect via fiber optic cables with the fourth using DSL. While our students are seemingly adequately wired at school, many still do not have access to the Internet at home or their Internet is not capable of handling the data demand that a simple research project might place on it. Quite simply, 4 out of the 5 towns in our district (Sheffield is serviced by a cable provider) lack sufficient broadband access for the 21st century. In a recent interview Chris Thompson, the Technology Coordinator for SBRSD, points out that a 21st century learning environment is imperative to students being able to compete on both a national and global scale. He notes that due to the ever-present nature of digital content, access to it must be easy and seamless with student access at school equally as important as student access at home.
Broadband access is thought to be one of the greatest educational equalizers of our time. However, we have our own digital divide not only with surrounding urban and suburban areas but also between home and school. Currently, teachers are choosing to do one of two things to combat the digital divide. Some teachers choose to only utilize technology to the lowest common home access point, which for many is dial-up or nothing. While not using technology equalizes the situation, students are missing out on valuable and enriching activities. Lack of Internet connection outside of school creates a fundamental barrier to fully integrating technology into the curriculum.
Other teachers do choose to integrate technology. However, students without adequate Internet access scramble to access the information either by downloading the content prior to leaving school or sitting in a car in front of a local library late into the evening so they can get their homework done. There are some who just don’t do the work creating a further marginalizing situation. Lack of an adequate high-speed Internet connection is fast becoming the new version of being born on the wrong side of the tracks. We have children in this district who are being thwarted from a robust education experience because their homes are simply in a more remote part of town or their road is too rural to be service by commercial providers.
As the educational needs of our students become more specialized in the upper grades, we are faced with a predicament of how to offer classes or opportunities to our students. Currently, if a student wishes to take a more specialized course or certain advance placement (AP) course at Mt. Everett Regional High School, they must take it online. Given the intensity of these courses, access to the online course at home is a necessity. According to Thompson, “there are students with keen interest that aren’t able to feed their interest because they don’t have Internet access at home.” There is a sinking feeling one gets in reading about preventable inequities that victimize a community’s most vulnerable citizens – our children.
Whether you are pro-technology in education or not is no longer an argument. It is here, it is happening and it is working. Schools and communities that have been able to fully embrace technologically rich learning have seen an increase in student engagement through interactive activities, been able to develop learner-centric education opportunities like “blended learning,” expand educational offering through on-line and streamed courses, increase administrative efficiencies and utilize data more effectively to accurately track student performance. In my reading on the topic, I am quick to realize that these gains and successes come from urban and suburban areas that are adequately wired. Which leads me to realize that the only thing standing in the way of all our driven students achieving such successes is being adequately wired.
I leave you with the following from a recent study out of the University of Texas (http://www.ruralstrategies.org/broadband for the complete study) offering the following data driven comment:
“Broadband will not bring immediate economic transformation to rural America, but regions that lack broadband will be crippled.” Having access to broadband is “simply treading water or keeping up; not having it means sinking… Broadband can’t guarantee an economic boom of jobs to the area, but NOT having it means jobs and people leaving the area … Trying to attain the status quo does not mean you benefit in some immense way, it just means that you don’t end up in a dire situation.”
The expansion of this idea means that having broadband in the area might not bring in a glut of new students, but NOT having it means we lose the ones we have. Broadband is not a cure all for students’ educational challenges but NOT having it is an insurmountable educational challenge in and of itself. Having broadband access for our community does mean that ALL of our students will have adequate access and equal opportunity to a robust educational experience. Personally, I find this makes the decision to wire our towns easier since we are the type of communities and school districts that only want the best for our children and citizens.
For information regarding how you can help end the digital divide in Western Massachusetts, please visit www.wiredwest.net.