I have been collecting stories on how people in Minnesota use the Internet since 1995. Back in the day there were two great stories that folks always brought up when talking about Internet in the schools. First – students getting to watch live knee surgery from their desks. Second – some sick or injured high school senior getting to attend the prom/graduation/big football game remotely. Great stories – but they highlighted the fact that the Internet was something new and different. It was exceptional.
This week, the St Cloud Times paints a different picture of Internet in the schools. The Internet/broadband now permeates every aspect of education – from teaching to education administration. Now it’s the classroom, school and student without access that have become the exception – and not in such an exceptional way…
Broadband is being used in Minnesota schools for student testing, reports to the state, portals for parents to track their child’s work, and for students to take online classes, according to a December report from the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband. Professional development for teachers is another area where broadband access can reduce costs.
“I think people don’t always realize … how essential Internet access is to the business of doing education. It’s no longer nice to have,” said Mary Mehsikomer, technology integration development and outreach facilitator for TIES, which is an education technology collaborative.
“It’s just as important as having electricity and water. It’s really become a core component of the whole business of delivering instruction and also managing school districts.”
The good news is that as the article points out – most schools and the majority of students have access. The bad news is that they often don’t have sufficient access. There are programs that are out there supporting connectivity, especially for schools. The FCC’s E-Rate program subsidies offset about $20 million to $25 million in Minnesota every year, about half of what it costs schools. On a more local level, Foley Schools recently received funding (via Blandin Foundation’s MIRC program) to install more wireless units in the school for school and community use.
And the Internet isn’t just for K12…
“Internet access has gotten so vitally important for college students,” said Vi Bergquist, chief information officer of St. Cloud Technical and Community College. “It’s almost a must.”
“Some people wouldn’t be able to get an education if we didn’t offer online classes,” she said.
At the college, registration is done only online and some classes are offered online, she said.
The college accommodates students who don’t have access at home with open computer labs, which is good but I think insufficient for many students. The article mentions a college student who was trying to take an online class using only her mobile phone. (That’s some dedication to the effort!)
So while progress is being made on the school front, progress is still lagging for home access in some areas and with some demographics…
“Some (parents) don’t realize what the kids can’t do,” he [Marc Johnson, director of ECMECC] added. “They don’t know they have access that just isn’t robust enough.”
As a community we should be asking what our kids can’t do due to limited technology – and is the cost of that lost opportunity greater than the cost of providing ubiquitous opportunity. (Both in terms of broadband connections and computers – as a parent of three students I can attest that the cost of the equipment can easily trump cost of connectivity.) There are lower-cost options available from Comcast and CenturyLink ($9.95/month and reduced rate computers for qualifying families) but that only helps in Comcast/CenturyLink coverage areas.