When schools can’t get online

Sep 11, 2014 by

About 70 percent of America’s elementary schools still rely on slow Internet connections. But in rural areas, the challenges—and costs—make getting broadband particularly complicated.

By Nichole Dobo –

The community built a new barn, right next to their elementary school. They hung a sign over its red doorway, naming it Sunshine Farms. Inside, the children began conducting science lessons by collecting data on animals. The barn contained 11 hens, two lambs, and one laptop protected with plastic wrap.

Until last year, the school in Maryland’s western Allegheny Mountains had Internet access through a molasses-slow dial-up connection; it crashed if too many students used it, and the slow speed made it frustrating for teachers. Now, for the first time, the school has reliable, high-speed Internet service.

“It opens up the world. A lot of our kids haven’t really been outside of Garrett County, so you can let them know there are different things out there,” said Dana McCauley, the principal and a teacher at Crellin Elementary. “And the kids, they want to use this technology. They are used to it. We have to step up if we want to keep them interested in learning.”

The laptop computer inside the Crellin Elementary School barn was built for outdoor use, but plastic wrap adds extra peace of mind in a district where new computers are often purchased with grants. (Nichole Dobo)

The federal government estimates that fewer than 30 percent of K-12 schools nationwide have adequate broadband infrastructure, and has pledged financing to help improve the situation. In Maryland, about $115 million in federal money has gone to improve broadband access. Last year, President Obama added more spending through the Connect Ed program, promising that “virtually all” the nation’s schools will have high-speed connections, along with teacher training and digital tools, by 2017.

A little slice of that federal money brought broadband last year to almost all of the 3,800 public school children in the Garrett County, Maryland’s most remote and least populous school district. Teachers are using the new service to develop high-tech lessons that retain familiar agricultural themes. Schools no longer need to limit students’ use of the Internet for fear of overburdening the connection, but they still must make do with very old computers. Two of the 12 schools in the district are not linked to the new fiber broadband and probably won’t be any time soon. Plus, the must-have list includes teacher training, rewiring of old buildings, and new curricular resources—most of which must be paid for by state and local funds at a time when money for the county’s schools is already scarce.

via When schools can’t get online | The Hechinger Report.

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