Continued from last week’s post “Is Everyone Wired?”:
Recap: I looked at how uneven high-speed access is in the United States with a focus on rural areas and provided statistical data from multiple sources.
What types of problems might this lack on internet access cause? For students, many. Teachers frequently assign homework that involves using the internet, but many cannot complete it and if they do, it is through creative means. For example, I once had to taken an online summer class with many videos and online quizzes. Since the dial-up connection we had at the time wouldn’t support the video and I frequently got “kicked off,” I couldn’t do any computer work at home. And being a rural area, the library wasn’t an option; the computers were for city residents. As a result, each week, I had one marathon day using my dad’s classroom computer to complete that week’s work. If students cannot use creative means, as I saw while subbing, they simply didn’t do the work and the teachers sent them to the library to do the assignments as make-up work. And that’s how I learned just how prevalent the problem still was. Plus, it means the students are chronically behind on their work and their overall learning.
Schools can come up with means to address this problem. First, this is one reason why the colleges offer computer labs, wireless access, and Ethernet ports in the residence halls. These combined efforts ensure the campus is always a welcome place for students to work and conduct research. Second, public libraries in urban and suburban areas offer the same services. Third, as the school district in question will begin next year, is to provide students with computers. In the fall, sixth through twelfth grade will be provided with school-owned Chromebooks to use in class and at home. Since many homes lack the internet connectivity, the school will be installing additional wireless routers and keep the building open for two hours after school and some weekend hours to provide internet access. Other districts within the region (including my dad’s) have arranged similar, but much smaller scale programs with tablets. (JCL, Fall 2012)
Another solution ran in our local paper Thursday. The two rural school districts that cover the southern half of my county asked the 911 Board to install wireless routers on its towers for students’ exclusive use. The suburban county to our north has already success with this. The Board said if the districts provided funding, they would work out a solution. While I think this will help some students, the county is too hilly for it to be much use. Why do I say this? I live on a hilltop that leads into a rather large valley. I get a decent cellular signal at home, but all it takes is a walk down the hill and I can’t get cell service! And as for my data plan, if we didn’t have a wireless router installed at home, my smartphone wouldn’t have access to any internet service. I have to drive into town for my 3G to be useful. However, at least it’s a step in the right direction. (JCL, 4/11/13).
As we can see, the internet connectivity issues lead to problems learning needed skills and, for students, to complete assignments. However, there is a government program aimed at helping to solve this problem. The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP; I’ve mentioned this before) has the end goal of expanding sustainable broadband access nationwide. This will be accomplished by laying new high-speed fiber optic cables to rural communities and establishing computer centers for use by those who cannot afford a computer. Additional goals of the program include teaching digital literacy skills in the affected area. Per the program’s website:
NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which heads the program] has awarded a total of $293 million to 56 grantees, one each from the 50 states, 5 territories, and the District of Columbia, or their designees. Grantees will use this funding to support the efficient and creative use of broadband technology to better compete in the digital economy. These state-created efforts vary depending on local needs but include programs to assist small businesses and community institutions in using technology more effectively, research to investigate barriers to broadband adoption, innovative applications that increase access to government services and information, and state and local task forces to expand broadband access and adoption. (source)
It is my hope that given time the various BTOP programs will greatly expand access to the rural areas. Like reading and mandatory education in the past, this tool and related skills have the opportunity to be great equalizers within society as a whole.
In conjunction with the access problem, library-related organizations have created two helpful online learning tools to teach those lacking internet access and/or home computers how to operate computers, use common programs, and teach internet and e-mail basics. These are DigtalLearn.org and the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment. DigitalLearn.org teaches using interactive videos and integrated quizzes. If a high enough percentage of questions are answered correctly per section, the user may print out a certificate of completion. Northstar uses a series of questions, often accompanied by a photo or diagram. At the end of each section, the test points our what the user did right or wrong, thus pointing out the skills that they still need to work on. In both cases, a user may opt to take all sections or just some. I’ve tested both. While I really like how Northstar tells its users what skills they need to work on, I think DigitalLearn is the better teaching tool. Check out the screenshots here (click to enlarge and see clearly) or the websites.
What other creative means have you seen to addressing the lack of internet access?
Also, this is National Library Week. Remember to thank your librarians and to remind your elected officials/academic administration that libraries benefit the community! Learn more about National Library Week here.
Note: The local paper (abbreviated here as JCL) is print only.