I have seen schools throughout the country where the excitement of learning is palpable and students utilize technology and internet access as an integral component in their daily learning. I've also witnessed the opposite -- schools with limited, antiquated access to the internet and little access to technology in the classroom -- where students simply don't have access to the tools and resources commonplace in universities and the workplace.
Sometimes these two types of schools exist within miles of each other, or just across a state line. No matter the location -- rural, urban or suburban -- a school's address should not dictate a lack of educational opportunities. We want every student to graduate high school ready for college and career, regardless of a student's home zip code. The promise of equal access to quality public education in 2014 means equal access to high-speed internet during the school day, and frankly should also extend to a student's home. For the fortunate high school students today, learning is no longer limited to the hours they are sitting at a desk in a classroom. The fortunate ones continue their learning after school and connect easily through their smart phones, iPads and laptops from home, from the coffee shop or from the library. They have access to students, teachers and resources to finish homework and to get ahead.
The disparity between the "have broadband and have nots" is taking place in many states, but nowhere is the issue as highly charged as in Arkansas. Arkansas ranks near the bottom of the list of states when it comes to digital learning and high-speed internet access in its public schools.
I've spent a good deal of time with my colleague, Matt McClure, understanding the challenges of high-speed access faced by school districts in Arkansas. Dr. McClure, former Superintendent of the Cross County School District in Cherry Valley, Arkansas, and 2010 Arkansas Superintendent of the Year, explained how we can "build a bridge between the haves and have nots in Arkansas by introducing 'equity of technology.'" (Dr. McClure is also the co-founder of a new education leadership program at Arkansas Tech -- LEAD 21 -- and is a board member of the Association for Supervision in Curriculum and Development -- ASCD.)
"This is a social injustice perpetuated by the phone companies, and the citizens of Arkansas need to take action to do something about it," said Dr. McClure.
"Telecommunications companies charge K-12 schools sky-high prices to connect their students to the internet. The irony is that in 2005 state and federal governments funded a network that links Arkansas's colleges to the internet - called ARE-ON. Connecting K-12 schools to that network would save Arkansas millions of dollars and equalize internet access."
While technology is not a silver bullet, the absence of it, and especially the lack of accessibility to high-speed internet access, is a significant "barrier to entry" for students in schools around the country. This is especially true for rural communities where students do not have the opportunity to travel far from home or experience diverse cultures. Broadband access allows these students to step outside of the classroom and outside of their community. Without high-speed internet, these schools have little chance of offering the quality of education their "wired" counterparts enjoy.
Lack of internet access affects everything related to providing students with a quality education, beginning with the basic classroom experience.
A student Dr. McClure refers to as Alice, for example, who attends a New Tech Network (NTN) school in rural Arkansas, has high-speed internet access. This student is learning with the use of devices that capitalize on the internet. This is a 1:1 ratio school (1 student: 1 laptop computer) where students thrive using project-based learning and are able to study in a way not possible without internet access. One such project is "I Need a Hero" -- a study of atoms in an 8th grade science class. This project, which aligns with state standards including Common Core, would be extremely difficult to do without high-speed internet that enables students to access the volume and diversity of source material needed to complete this type of classroom assignment.
As Dr. McClure describes, Alice is engaged and excited to come to school. She can access relevant information online in real time. She is learning with a focus on collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking -- skills that will serve her well in college and are essential to thrive in today's work environment.
Our other student, Bruce, lives miles from Alice and has limited high-speed internet access at school and/or at home. Dr. McClure details a scenario where Bruce and his classmates struggle to get online at school. Most class work is done by reading textbooks, writing reports and listening to teachers lecture. Bruce can't explore on his own, can't learn on his own and has to rely on what his teacher provides as the most current information.
Arkansas is lucky -- its dilemma can be easily resolved. "A task force, convened by Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, recommended earlier this year that the state's K-12 schools be connected to the ARE-ON fiber network. We only need to amend Act 1050, which the governor supports, to allow K-12 schools access to the same network Arkansas colleges and universities have utilized," said Dr. McClure.
The Arkansas legislature has to act quickly; Governor Beebe's term ends in December. There's no time to waste. With high-speed access to ARE-ON, rural school districts can join the 21st century and provide their students access to the same quality education as other districts. I have a fondness in my heart for Arkansas and for the hard-working educators, such as Dr. McClure, who want to open the world for all students. C'mon Arkansas legislators -- let's do the right thing for students and do it now.