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Tim Newman
In the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, students have access to digital learning opportunities at school, but many students lack adequate and necessary Internet connectivity at home, creating a digital divide.

Wired West broadband is essential for education in the Berkshires

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By Saturday, May 23, 2015 Learning 5

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.

A Wired West roadside  sign in New Marlborough, Massachusetts. Photo: Tim Newman

A Wired West roadside sign in New Marlborough, Massachusetts. Photo: Tim Newman

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 (https://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.

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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. GMHeller says:

    Thanks, but I’ve already read plenty enough regarding WireWest’s flowery vision for Berkshire County’s future.
    Call me skeptical, but I’m still left with the question: If a Town’s voters agree to climb aboard the WiredWest bandwagon, just how long does that mean that town taxpayers will be obligated to pay off both principal and interest on the resulting bond issue?
    Just when will taxpayers finally be free from this obligation to subsidize a service many will never use (and for which technology already provides cost-effective alternatives, let alone those ‘in-the-hopper’)?

    1. CanAmFam says:

      What would an article in a Berkshire publication be without an out-of-touch comment from GM Heller? LOL.

      Most of us want progress, Mr. Heller, and realize that without this critical investment in our future, life and population in our small towns will decline. You can always take a look at the FAQs on their website for answers to your questions, though we all know the very best information won’t change your myopic view on this issue. https://wiredwest.net/map-of-wired-west-towns/faqs/

      1. richard gray says:

        thank you CAM for your great comment setting the record straight. as homeowners for 12 years in south egremont we have been unable to get proper internet access. we would love to spend more time up north and possibly move one dayl from our home in florida but still must work and we need decent internet. It is essential to all our communities to draw businesses into our region and families that want their children to be able to properly learn. Looking forward to the day wired west comes down sheffield road.

  2. Anne Meczyeor says:

    Not supporting the availability of broadband for all is today’s equivalent of not backing the availability of telephone lines to the last house on the road. Technology is a critical part of everyday life. Safety, education, basic communication and sharing of current events depend on it. Might communities need to pay so their citizens can have this very, very basic and necessary utility? Yes, like every other public utility, they should. Times have changed. It is to all our benefit that we all are connected.

  3. Arthur Dellea says:

    What most of you don’t know is that WiredWest is not an established internet provider; they do not own a single utility vehicle nor do they own a single foot of functioning fiber-optic cable, they are starting from scratch. After my intimate involvement in broadband politics for nearly a decade (and spending hours in WiredWest meetings with an inside view of their proposed plans) I can tell you with assurance that WiredWest will likely fail. I suppose by some miracle they could prove me wrong, but don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for them to provide you with service. This is why some towns in western Massachusetts have decided to “jump off from WiredWest’s bandwagon” and are considering the financing and build-out of their own fiber-optic networks… it can be done by any town with the right people at the helm of the project. In my opinion, our rural towns will most likely come up with more effective plans to suit their own more specific and reachable needs, in contrast to being a part of a larger multi-town network that will not allow individual towns to have any say over the construction, operation and maintenance of their own networks. Due to the unique topography of each of our rural towns in western Massachusetts, each town may need to consider a mixed solution, such as fiber-optics and fixed wireless for example, in order to get closer to 100% coverage. In some towns, getting fiber to everyone’s front door simply is not financially feasible due to the limited number of residents-per-mile in rural areas, etc. All in all, WiredWest is not the only answer to this problem, and their solution may not even be a logical or feasible answer for all towns in the long run. Yes, we definitely need rural access to fast, reliable broadband internet service, but we need it ASAP, not 10 years from now… each town’s solution cannot be based on hollow promises. In fact, all state funding concerning broadband expansion should have been logically and fairly divided based on population, towns with fewer residents getting more money, and additional funds being met via taxes and loans. The money should have also been granted directly to each of our town’s broadband committees, eliminating all middle-men from squandering the funds in frivolous ways…. that would’ve been the best solution for funding rural broadband expansion.

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