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. Continue reading

FCC Modernizes E-Rate for Schools and Libraries

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It’s time to modernize school technology
(Credit: London School of Economics, 1981 — via Flickr Creative Commons)

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to modernize E-Rate. E-Rate was established in 1996 to provide federal subsidies to schools and libraries for telecommunications and Internet access. Back then, many schools were still on dial-up and the broadband available was sluggish by today’s standards. What’s more, the Internet was something people accessed from desks, not mobile devices.

Under the new rules, schools will be encouraged to upgrade to 1 gigabit, which is a thousand times faster than the 1 megabit service that many schools use today.

Mobile and Community Access

Another provision of the new rules provides pilot program for mobile access. Although still relatively rare, some schools are using smartphones, iPads, iPod Touches, Netbooks and laptops as part of the learning process and now at least a few schools will be able to use E-Rate funding to equip students with devices that let them access learning materials not only from school but from home, in-between school and home or wherever they happen to be. In a speech he gave on Monday at Common Sense Media’s “Back to School Event” in Mountain View, California, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski talked about how mobile technology can replace the “50 pound backpacks” full of books that many of our kids are carrying. For more on mobile learning see Cellphones & school: a great mix by Anne Collier who is editor of NetFamilyNews and my co-director at ConnectSafely.org.

Another provision of the new rules allows schools to offer broadband services to local communities during non-school hours. In theory it might be possible for schools to set up their wireless networks for their neighbors, especially now that the FCC also approved so-called “Super WiFi” which uses the white space between TV channels as unlicensed spectrum for signals that can travel much further than current WiFi.

Schools Can Still Over-Block

One issue that the agency didn’t address is that a 2000 federal law, The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), requires schools and libraries that receive E-Rate to filter Internet access to prevent kids from accessing “visual depictions deemed obscene, pornographic, or harmful to minors.” While I have no qualms about blocking porn and gratuitous violence, it’s unfortunate that the filters at many schools also block access to social networking sites, including Facebook.

While it is certainly possible for students (and the rest of us) to waste precious time on Facebook, there are also plenty of educational opportunities afforded by Facebook and other social networking tools. Away from school kids are using these tools not only to socialize, but to share their creative works and to collaborate on projects. If schools are truly going to prepare youth for living, learning and working the the 21st century, they have to embrace 21st century technology which means more than just putting them in front of computers or even mobile devices to consume learning materials. Kids also need to be encouraged to create content and share it with others. They do that anyway, so why not make it part of what they do at school with appropriate supervision, guidance and educational incentives.

My Interview with FCC Chairman

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Julius Genachowski

For more on this, please read about and listen to my recent CBS News & CNET interview with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

FCC Chair on E-Rate and Net Neutrality

by Larry Magid
September 23, 2010
(this article originally appeared on CNET News.com)

As chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski is playing a key role in what could turn out to be sweeping changes in the way the Internet reaches children in schools and libraries. He’s also the point man in a national debate on Net neutrality as some Internet service providers square off against activists who demand that the federal government ensure that companies not be able to prioritize network traffic.

FCC Chair Julius Genachowski (Credit FCC)

Prior to his appointment as FCC chairman by President Obama in 2009, Genachowski spent more than a decade in the private sector as co-founder of LaunchBox, a managing director of Rock Creek Ventures, and as an executive at IAC/InterActiveCorp.

E-Rate to be “modernized”
I interviewed Genachowski two days before a scheduled FCC meeting where the Commission is expected to approve changes in the E-rate program. E-Rate, established by Congress in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, taps into the Universal Service Fund from fees paid by telecommunications subscribers to provide telecommunications and Internet access to schools and libraries.

Genachowski was at the Computer Museum in Mountain View, Calif., yesterday to speak at a forum sponsored by Common Sense Media on “Back to School: Learning and Growing in a Digital Age.” According to the FCC, 97 percent of American schools and nearly all public libraries have basic Internet access but 78 percent of E-Rate recipients told the agency that they need faster connections. “Many schools and teachers complained that the Internet access they had is too slow to take advantage of the opportunities of digital tools for the students,” Genachowski said. (Scroll down to listen to the podcast.)

Addressing the growing educational use of mobile technology, he said that “for the first time we’re going to begin a pilot program to have E-Rate cover mobile. There are huge opportunities here in e-textbooks and interactive learning materials.” He added that teachers increasing know that they want kids to have access to broadband wherever they are and to do not just digital classwork but digital homework.” The chairman also talked about wanting to make “a world of knowledge available to every kid, wherever they were born, whatever school district they live in, and whatever country they’re in.”

Net neutrality
I also asked Genachowski about Net neutrality, which has been a very hot topic for the FCC. We spoke exactly one year after he gave a speech (PDF) where he outlined strong support for treating all network traffic equally. In the ensuing months there have been delays in implementing new rules and complaints from advocacy groups such as Free PressMedia Access Project, and Public Knowledge arguing that Genachowski has so far failed to follow up on his promises.

In the interview, Genachowski said, “We’re making real progress and seeing more and more widespread recognition that we need to have these six enforceable principals (PDF) to preserve the free and open Internet.”

When asked about the accusations that the agency hasn’t fulfilled his promises to guarantee neutrality, he responded: “There are still some difficult substantive issues to work out. We’re doing that now in consultation with the broadest degree of stakeholders and we need to make sure in view of some court decision that came out over the last year that we have find a sustainable legal foundation.”

Click Here to  Listen to Larry’s Entire Interview with Genachowski

FCC chairman outlines broadband plan for kids

by Larry Magid

This article initially appeared on CNET News.com

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski laid out the “broadband plan for children and families” Friday at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

FCC chairman gets help from Elmo in promoting broadband plan for kids. (Credit: FCC video of speech via YouTube)

Referring to children as “our most precious national resource,” Genachowski said “we must do everything we can to educate and prepare them to thrive in the 21st century and keep them safe.” New technologies, he said, “can expose our children to new dangers, and can potentially outpace the ability of parents to guide their children.”

Genachowski had a mostly positive view of technology for kids, especially as it applies to learning. “The benefits of digital learning aren’t just theoretical. They’re real. One study found that low-income children who use the Internet more at home had higher GPAs and standardized test scores than children who use it less,” he said. He added that we need to set a “clear and non-negotiable goal: every child should be connected to broadband.”

Outline of tech dangers
He also talked about some of the dangers, but he didn’t harp on the more typical fears of predators and porn that have so often been repeated by government officials for years.

Instead, he raised concerns about the more common risk of online harassment; pointing out that “43 percent of kids have been cyberbullied, but only 10 percent tell someone about it.”

He also talked about harmful Web sites, referencing those that encourage self-destructive behavior, pointing out that “35 percent of eating disorder patients visit pro-anorexia Web sites.”

He talked about the issue of distracted driving : “A quarter of U.S. teens with cell phones say they have texted while driving. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Board, 80 percent of fatal teen accidents are caused by distracted driving.” Finally, he cautioned about inappropriate advertising such as children’s exposure to Viagra ads and scary movie trailers and the relative lack of advertising for “a healthy food product during children’s programming.”

He reminded the audience about the “recent Kaiser study that found that children consume recreational media 7 1/2 hours a day, and are consuming nearly 11 hours’ worth of content.”

Digital literacy and digital citizenship
In addition to focusing on access and safety, Genachowski also talked about digital literacy and digital citizenship which, increasingly, are being seen as critical components to keeping kids safe and productive online.

Digital literacy, he said, isn’t just about learning to use technology but “teaching kids to think analytically, critically and creatively, so that they can find relevant information, assess the accuracy and reliability of that information, distinguish fact from opinion, and create and share new content.” He also said we “have to teach our children to become media literate so that they can evaluate media content and recognize advertising for what it is.”

Finally, he stressed digital citizenship, which he described as “the values, ethics, and social norms that allow virtual communities, including social networks, to function smoothly. It means having norms of behavior that facilitate constructive interaction and promote trust.” He pointed out the “unique challenges” of digital communities: “People can remain anonymous or change identities, allowing them to act without regard to consequences.” But he questioned “how do we create a framework of online norms and values” and “who determines what these values and norms should be?”

Elements of broadband plan
Key elements of the proposed broadband plan include “modernizing the Universal Service Fund” to include broadband “instead of plain old telephone service.” He also called for the establishment of a National Digital Literacy Program that would encompass:

•An online digital literacy portal to allow any child, parent, or teacher with a broadband connection to take courses on digital literacy.

•A digital literacy corps to mobilize thousands of technically-trained youths and adults to train non-adopters, including families that are hard to reach because of cultural and language barriers.

•Better broadband capacity for libraries and community centers so that they can continue to help families become digitally literate.

The FCC chairman called upon parents to take responsibility for their kids’ use of digital media. This includes communicating positive messages about technology to their children, setting digital media rules, engaging with kids and using technology together, “teaching personal responsibility and reinforcing basic social norms to encourage responsible online behavior.”

More resources
For more on this issues, see my nonprofit, ConnectSafely.org, and its Online Safety 3.0 initiative.

You can also read “FCC’s positive new plan for digital literacy & Net safety” from my ConnectSafely co-director, Anne Collier.

Click here for a PDF of Genachowski’s speech or else watch it on YouTube as follows: