Sunday, November 23, 2014

#FutureReady Requires a "National Highway Program" to Ensure Internet Connectivity for Every School

Implied within the Future Ready District Pledge that has now been signed by over 1,200 superintendents across the country is the necessity of ensuring every school and every student has access to high-speed Internet connectivity. Without it, much of the seven commitments contained in the pledge have little chance of being successful.

I was somewhat taken back by President Obama's claim during our session with him that less than two out of every five schools have access to high-speed broadband Internet.
Right now, fewer than 40 percent of public schools have high-speed Internet in their classrooms — less than half. That’s not good, since we invented the Internet.  That’s not good. It means that in most American schools, teachers cannot use the cutting-edge software and programs that are available today. They literally don’t have the bandwidth.
I’ve said before, in a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee the least we can do is expect that our schools are properly wired.  
Looking back at his ConnectED plan released two years ago, the goal is for 99% of schools to be connected within five years. Given that we're less than three years from his self-imposed deadline, I'd say we have a lot of work to do as a nation to achieve that goal.

During the President's remarks, he noted that several other countries are substantially outpacing us in providing high-speed connectivity even at speeds many times higher than we experience in the U.S.  Susan Crawford, law professor and telecommunications policy expert, makes the claim that, "(I)n cities like Seoul and Stockholm, high-speed, high-capacity networks are taken for granted. 'It really is astonishing what's going on in America,' she says. 'We're falling way behind in the pack of developed nations when it comes to high-speed Internet access, capacity and prices.'"

The blog site Speed Matters argues that by falling behind in high-speed connectivity, we're doing damage to our economy at a level that may be difficult to overcome if as a nation we don't take positive action soon. Specifically regarding education, the site claims:
High speed Internet enhances every level of education from kindergarten through high school to college to graduate school. Advances in information and communications technology means that education is no longer confined to the classroom. New broadband-enabled educational tools allow for remote collaboration among fellow students on projects, videoconferences with teachers and real-time video exploration of faraway areas. The educational advantage possible with high speed Internet has become indispensable to students preparing to enter the 21st Century workforce. Those students with limited or no access in their formative elementary school years are falling behind. Computer skills must go beyond technical competency, to include higher-level skills such as critical thinking and problem solving as well as the creative use of technology. The earlier every student in America is connected to high speed Internet, the brighter our country’s future will be.
So it seems clear to me after spending time with the President, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and high-level administration folks this past week, a national effort on par with Dwight D. Eisenhower's federal highway act is likely the only way we're going to catch up, ensuring every school and community is connect to the high-speed Internet highway. In a special message to Congress on February 22, 1955, President Eisenhower noted that:
Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods. The ceaseless flow of information throughout the Republic is matched by individual and commercial movement over a vast system of interconnected highways criss-crossing the Country and joining at our national borders with friendly neighbors to the north and south. 
Together, the uniting forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear--United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.
One can easily see the parallels to our current world whereby the Internet has become a critical -- some may even say most important -- part of our economic and communication infrastructure, similar not only to our highway transportation network but also our telecommunications network that spans the country. Neither of these two networks were left to the whims of states, local communities or private enterprise.

Eisenhower noted four key reasons why Congress needed to get onboard with his highway plan. He knew that failure to move ahead with his initiative would mean another half century before the highway network reached any level of reasonable efficiency or connectivity.  I've boiled those four down to illustrate two reasons for today's need to push for universal high-speed Internet access on a national scale. If we don't we'll continue to experience:
  • Growing economic loss due to a fractured system and inequitable access by communities, schools and students.
  • Inability to keep pace with future technological growth and change, with their ultimate impact on communications, demand for access, and college/career readiness.
In the June 2006 issue of American History, Logan Thomas Snyder noted that:
(T)he interstate system, more than any other project in the past 50 years, has encouraged an unprecedented democratization of mobility. It has opened up access to an array of goods and services previously unavailable to many and created massive opportunities for five decades and three generations of Americans. It has made the country more accessible to itself while also making it safer and more secure, outcomes that in almost any other undertaking would prove mutually exclusive. ‘More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America,’ Eisenhower wrote in 1963. ‘Its impact on the American economy — the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up — was beyond calculation.’ The clarity of his vision and the resiliency of his words are inarguable. The Eisenhower Interstate System has grown to be valuable beyond its original intent and is a lasting tribute to American ingenuity, ability and strength of purpose. 
I believe it's time for a national effort replicating Eisenhower's vision by ensuring that by the end of President Obama's five-year ConnectEd plan, all schools and every community are fully connected to high-speed Internet with sufficient bandwidth to support access to a variety of technology tools by every student and their families. Only then will America move forward with Future Ready schools for every child.

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