Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Community College Trap?

A colleague forwarded this article from The Atlantic and I found it interesting. I found the following two point to be of most interest to me - of course, you may find other interesting points as well. In any event, I think you will find it a good read... (And, BTW, I haven't fact-checked the statistics yet.)

  1. The statistics about the number of community college students who earn degrees shocked me at first. "Nationwide, barely more than a third of community-college enrollees emerge with a certificate or degree within six years." Now, my shock was lessened just a bit by understanding that many people take community college courses for continuing education or improvement of job skills without an expectation of earning a certificate or degree. However, that statistic is still interesting to me. We don't hear that from the admissions folks or other officials at the colleges.
  2. The second idea that I found interesting was the authors outlook on the rise of options, such as massive open online courses, or, MOOCs, designed to give students easier access to higher education. She notes that, "All it will take for students to avail themselves of this emerging opportunity is a clear sense of where they’re headed, lots of self-motivation, and good access to information about what mix of skills is likely to lead to a promising career." Further noting that those are some of the qualities many of the students community college was designed for struggle with the most. 
The main point of the article is to highlight a program that gives struggling students a solid level of support through their community college experience and appears to lead to high rates of success. Now, if we could find a way to extend that kind of support to the world of online learning, we might find more success there too. Once again, you can find the entire article here:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rural Broadband and Education - Part 4

So... how does a lack of affordable broadband access in rural areas affect a typical family? Let me give you an example (based on real people and experiences)...

This "rural" family lives only a few miles outside of a community of over 3,000 people. The family is composed of two tech-savvy parents and two high school students with four smartphones, a tablet device, and two laptop computers. Statistically, a fairly average situation. Available options and approximate costs (real rates and NOT special introductory pricing) for this family to consider include:
  • Cellular data access available from two carriers, one offering 4G technology at about 8mbps download speed. Pricing is based on data usage (data caps) with an average of $10 per GB/mo with a $15 per GB overage charge. Additional monthly costs are incurred for each connected device and/or a shared hotspot device.
  • Fixed wireless service offering speeds up to 5mbps down. Costs include equipment (about $300), setup (about $150), router (about $75) and a monthly charge of up to $100 for 5mbps speed (slower options are available at a lower monthly rate). 
  • Satellite service offering speeds up to 12mbps down. Costs include setup fee (about $150), equipment rental (about $10 per month) a two-year service agreement and a monthly charge of $50 (with a 10GB data cap) to $130 (with a 25GB data cap).
  • DSL service from the local telephone company offering a speed of up to 1.5mbps (however, in their location it is more likely to be about 768kbps) with a monthly charge of $35 month with equipment rental and a landline (more if no phone line is included)
  • Dialup service is available, but doesn't even come close to the lowest definition of broadband.
Given those options, what would your choice be and what would the conversations in your household sound like? How would you feel knowing that if you lived in town 3 miles away, you would have access to 30mbps speeds with no data cap for less than $50/mo or 7mbps with no data cap for less than $40/mo?

This family does not live "in the middle of nowhere." With the options they have, they cannot reliably stream any kind of video, be it for entertainment or educational purposes, without the risk of high cost for higher data consumption or overages. They are forced to carefully monitor their Internet usage and plan around time at work and school to update apps on mobile devices, run updates on computers, and do other bandwidth intensive activities. Most options don't provide reliable use of communications technologies such as Skype or Google+ due to high latency or slow speed. All of this forces the discussion to be about what can't be done rather than focusing on what can (or needs to) be done.

Why does this matter? We make choices when we decide to live where we do, right? Consider the increasing use of laptop computers and mobile devices in schools. How useful is your computer, tablet or smartphone when it isn't connected to a high speed, Wi-Fi network? What goes through your mind when you are away from home and staying in a hotel with poor wireless access? Students access class work online through web portals and learning management systems. Homework involves accessing information on these sites and communicating with teachers and classmates online. Interactive electronic textbooks and other online learning resources are fast becoming the norm in education. Is it fair to put students without this access at an immediate disadvantage, forcing the students and teachers to figure out accommodations? Would it be fair to all students NOT to use these technologies if they make education better?

Well, this only affects a small population, right? Overall, a majority of people in this nation have access to high-speed broadband, but that doesn't mean it is affordable. Costs can vary wildly, which adds to the divide we are creating. Providers lure customers in with artificially low (loss-leading) introductory pricing and then costs rise dramatically after a year or two. Additionally, consider that nearly 75% of the population in Kanabec County (Minnesota) lives outside of the counties communities and, therefore, has very similar options to those above. There are many other parts of this country that are similar.

Broadband access is beginning to define the haves and have-nots. It is the new digital divide. We will not stop the movement of voice, video and print resources online. Soon, land-line phones, DVDs (and Blu-ray), CDs, books, magazines and newspapers will be a thing of the past just like video tapes, records, and encyclopedias. If we don't become concerned about how to make affordable high-speed access ubiquitous, we will put a whole subset of our nation's population further behind.

I'll be taking a break from writing about this topic (but keep reading for other ramblings!) until after the "Boarder to Boarder Broadband: A Call to Action" conference coming up February 4-5, 2014 in St. Paul, MN. I'm hopeful that there will be concrete action items that come out of the conference that I can write about. If you are interested in attending, find more information at: 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Rural Broadband and Education - Part 3

Took a few days off - this takes more time than I'd like it too!

I said after the last post that this time, I would talk about how increased bandwidth changed the environment in a school. In May 2006, I took a job as the technology director for ISD 15 in St. Francis, MN. At the time, the school district of nearly 6,000 students, with six school buildings and several other service facilities was served by two T-1 circuits. That is the equivalent of about 3mbps. Now, 2006 was quite some time ago, but at the same time, the 10 school districts in ECMECC shared a gigabit fiber network and 200mbps of Internet bandwidth.

The fist thing I did in my new district was to go on a listening tour to hear from all district administrators, department chairs and program directors. I wanted to know what was great about technology in their school and what they saw as issues. You can probably guess that I heard about many more issues than I did positives. Over and again, I heard about all the things they couldn't do because the technology department told them there wasn't enough bandwidth to run the student information system, finance/payroll systems and many educational tools at the same time. The district had a subscription to a popular streaming video service but staff was told they couldn't stream the videos during class, instead having to schedule videos to download after hours. The service hardly ever was used. They were told that they should not expect to use Internet resources with a class in a computer lab as they would probably not work. Teachers complained about slow access to Internet resources and they could not use the electronic grade book and other features that were part of their student information system. Technology committee meetings, I heard, were frustrating exercises and the technology department and staff seemed constantly at odds.

Within a few months, the St. Francis district was connected to the ECMECC network and had access to as much Internet bandwidth as they could use. During the first part of the 06-07 school year, the bandwidth use climbed to nearly 10mbps - which doesn't sound like much by today's standard, but was over 3 times what they had access to only months earlier. While not all technology issues were solved by this, the conversations with staff and administration changed almost overnight. Technology planning went into full swing and the technology committee talked about what they could do. We implemented use of streaming video in the classroom and for athletic teams. Teachers began using Internet resources with their classes in labs. Projectors and whiteboards started showing up so resources could be used in classrooms. Discussion began about wireless access. Everyone was excited about technology in the school, a far cry from where they had been only a few months earlier.

I left the district only two years later, but the district is now a full member of ECMECC and has numerous technology initiatives that rival that of most school districts. For example, the district has a "bring-your-own-device" policy that sees thousands of mobile devices attached to their network every day. Students use the devices for course work and research. Technology goals set during the technology planning process are reached. The district is using interactive video conferencing to take students on virtual trips around the world to participate in interactive learning experiences. See this link for a story about IVC at St. Francis from WCCO-TV. Implementing unlimited bandwidth was a simple change that fundamentally altered the educational technology conversation throughout the district.

Up Next: This is an example of how things changed for a school district once they had no data cap (in this case related to speed). I believe data caps in place for many of the choices rural residents and business have for broadband create a similar situation where conversations are more about what can't be done than what can. We'll take a look at that issue next time. - Stay warm!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Rural Broadband and Education - Part 2

How much bandwidth is enough?

This is a graph showing the average amount of Internet bandwidth consumed in an average week by the 42,000+ students and 2,000+ instructional and administrative staff in the 14 ECMECC member school districts that I work with.

If you look closely, you can see that we are using about 1.0gbps (that's 1000 megabits per second) during peak times. Eight years ago, we served most of these same schools with 10mbps - that's 1% of what we are using now -- and is similar to the speed of a "basic" DSL or Cable connection in a non-metro community. Today, our schools use 100 times the bandwidth they did eight years ago on a daily basis. And... the number continues to climb. So, what are students and staff doing with all this bandwidth, and what is enough?

There are people who will have us believe that kids are watching videos, playing games and engaging in social media activities while in school. I would say that they are absolutely right, students, are, indeed, doing all of those things. They would say this is a waste of time and bandwidth. I would say it is the way students learn today. Recently, a letter to the editor appeared in our local paper from a writer who believed we should eliminate computers (and presumably mobile devices - though they didn't say that specifically) from our schools since they detract from what they believe is the best way to learn. At a recent meeting I attended organized by Senator Matt Schmit, a participant suggested that people in rural areas and communities don't need "that much" bandwidth since their kids will just stream movies, play games and spend all their time on "that Facebook." Once again, I contend that this is now how people access this kind of content and communicate. It would be like going back 20 years and saying some people don't need a VCR or a phone since they will just play movies and talk.

Think back 10 years... How many places could you find in your area to rent a DVD (or buy one)? Today, how many are there? While rental stores have been replaced to some degree by Netflix (mail-order) and services like Redbox, there is no disputing that the options for renting and buying physical content (DVDs) are diminishing and will likely vanish in the not-to-distant future. The same is true for music (CDs). Now, music and video content is streamed online, and it takes a robust Internet connection to get good quality. Of course, that's entertainment. What about education?

Again, take yourself back 20 years or so and think about how you "learned." Current events information may have come from newspapers, broadcast television or local radio. Remember the trip to the public library or a bookstore to find a book about something that you wanted to learn about? Remember when you needed a manual to figure out how to replace the headlight in your car? In school, you used textbooks that may have been published as long as 10 years or more prior to your use and films that were produced in years gone by.

Today, the number of daily newspapers being published in the United States is down 25% from 20 years ago and readership numbers have fallen off exponentially. Broadcast television and radio is struggling to keep viewers and listeners and has less and less unbiased "news" content. Physical books and manuals have been replaced by ebooks and videos. Heck, most encyclopedia companies don't make encyclopedias anymore (though World Book still does!). We don't access information or learn like that anymore. All of this content has shifted online and will continue to do so.

Accessing that information takes bandwidth in larger and larger amounts. There is a seemingly endless amount of rubbish on YouTube, but it is also the first place I go now when I want to know how to fix or do something. News organizations use YouTube to post content and there are just as many educational videos as cat videos (OK, maybe almost as many as cat videos!) See the Khan Academy for just one example of educational content on YouTube. Without high-speed, affordable Internet access students and families are immediately at a disadvantage. What is enough? I don't know, but I do know that a large number of Minnesotan's (and I'm sure others in the US) don't have adequate access to learn and live in the world of Internet delivered content. People living in high-density urban areas keep getting improved Internet speeds while those in rural areas pay more for less and see little speed improvement. As I said in my previous post, it is our new digital divide and we need to find a solution.

Up Next: How increased bandwidth fundamentally changed the education environment of a school district and how it could change a families life.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Rural Broadband and Education - Part 1

Starting a multi-part series of posts about some of the issues around broadband access in rural areas and education. I've been working for several years with a variety of rural broadband initiatives including the Kanabec Broadband Initiative (KBI) and the East Central Broadband Initiative (ECBI). These groups, and others like them, continue to educate the general public about the importance of broadband, and work to bring more broadband options and affordability to rural parts of Minnesota.

It is no secret that with the proliferation of mobile devices, 1-1 initiatives and migration to cloud based services for productivity and curriculum resources, schools rely on broadband more than ever, and there is no looking back. Unfortunately, many of our students, especially those living in rural areas outside of communities, do not have adequate, affordable broadband access. This puts them at an immediate disadvantage in the new technology-laden education environment. We have a new divide to conquer. Of course, the lack of quality, affordable access in rural areas poses a number of problems from economic development to quality of life to healthcare, to name a few. My focus, however, continues to be on education.

To that end, I have participated in some community meetings recently, arranged by MN Senator Matt Schmit and sponsored by various community organizations. Senator Schmit has taken on the issue of rural broadband and spent time in November and January touring the state to hear about the needs of rural Minnesotans. I had the opportunity to attend two of the meetings in Mora and North Branch to represent the schools in the area. In both cases, I shared some of the initiatives going on in area schools and talked about how schools are limited to what they can expect from students using technology outside of the school buildings. Our schools have very high speed access and do not have speed or data usage caps. I shared that this has changed the way schools talk about technology. Our schools do not talk about what they can't do (because of low bandwidth), they talk about what they CAN do. Sadly, that is not the case with many families living in rural areas. With slow speeds, data caps and expensive overage charges, these families still talk about what they CAN'T do.

I will bring this message to the Border to Border Broadband conference on February 4th and 5th in St. Paul. Senator Schmit has invited me to participate with him on a panel to share the messages he heard around the state during his listening tour. I invite anyone interested in the rural broadband divide to attend this conference supported by the Blandin Foundation.

Up Next: I'll share some of the comments heard from the meetings around the idea of "how much bandwidth (or speed) is enough."