New rules upgrade broadband for schools and libraries

by Larry Magid
This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

The Federal Communications Commission last week approved new rules for the E-Rate program that will modernize broadband for schools and libraries.

Established by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, E-Rate taps into the Universal Service Fund, which is paid for by telecommunications subscribers to provide telecommunications and Internet access to schools and libraries. When it was first implemented, many schools were still on dial-up and those that had broadband were typically connecting at relatively show speeds. It was also before anyone (let alone school kids) had smartphones.

Fast-forward to 2010. As Internet service providers and municipalities deploy fiber and other high-speed technologies, it’s now possible to move way beyond what we used to call broadband — speeds that often hovered at or below 1 megabit per second. Now we’re talking about a gigabit, which is a thousand times faster. This faster connectivity makes it possible for schools to employ modern tele-learning tools both to consume and host multimedia content. And in case you think a gigabit or more is overkill, consider that the bandwidth often needs to be shared by multiple classrooms and, in some cases, thousands of students.

Another reality of 2010 is that the Internet is no longer something we access only when sitting at a desk. Smartphones, tablets, netbooks and even the iPod touch and portable gaming devices make it possible to access the Net from anywhere. So instead of just providing broadband access to classrooms, the new E-Rate rules are designed to fund mobile pilot programs to enable students to access the Net from wherever they happen to be. Schools are increasingly using smartphones in and out of the classroom. For example, at Lincoln Middle School in Ypsilanti, Mich., teachers use smartphones provided by Sprint to learn how to create graphs and charts.

The new E-Rate rules also take note of the fact that schools are part of communities and, potentially, a way to bring high-speed Internet to people in their neighborhoods. Last week’s ruling made permanent an earlier provisional waiver that allows schools to offer community access to their bandwidth during nonschool hours.

Shortly before the vote, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski mentioned how a school in West Virginia used its broadband connection to facilitate a “command center” during the Upper Big Branch coal mining disaster in April. Beyond letting people use campus facilities, I’m not sure how schools might extend broadband beyond the campus. But it’s certainly possible to do so wirelessly, especially if they use the so-called “super Wi-Fi” spectrum that will be facilitated by the unlicensed access to the “white space” between TV channels that the FCC also approved at the same meeting.

While the new E-Rate program is a great boon to schools and communities, there is one troubling aspect to it. In 2000, Congress passed a well-meaning law called the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires that schools and libraries that receive E-Rate funds “employ technological protections that block or filter certain visual depictions deemed obscene, pornographic or harmful to minors.”

While hardly anyone would disagree with Congress’ intention to keep minors away from such material, the CIPA has brought about some unintended consequences because many of the filters used in schools block more than just indecent and violent material. A great many also block social networking sites, which didn’t even exist when the law was passed. There is nothing in the CIPA that requires filters used in schools to cast such a wide net but they typically do, which means that some of the very technologies kids are using on a daily basis out of school are not available in school.

I’m not suggesting that kids be allowed to use Facebook or other social media services to socialize during school hours. But if we’re going to encourage 21st-century learning, we need to take note that students are no longer simply consumers of knowledge, they are also creators and sharers. A great deal of what young people learn comes from collaboration with their peers. And while there is always the possibility of access to inappropriate material or posting text images or videos that can be harmful to themselves or others, there is the far more likely possibility of creative use of these services to enhance their learning.

The FCC didn’t address filters or the CIPA during its discussion of modernizing E-Rate but I did raise the issue of students using social media to share and create content when I interviewed Genachowski after his appearance in Mountain View at a “Back to School Event” sponsored by Common Sense Media. “It’s a wonderful learning opportunity,” he said, adding “we see more and more teachers and students working together to incorporate that kind of energy and creativity into class work. It’s very promising and it’s teaching the skills the next generation will need to know to participate in the word that’s coming.”

So, hats off to the FCC for modernizing E-Rate. Now let’s hope schools modernize their attitude toward the use of technology to embrace rather than try to block some of the technologies students are using in their daily lives. Besides, about the only people who don’t know how to bypass filters at schools and libraries are teachers and staff.

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