Monday, April 25, 2016

Some high-poverty rural schools are stuck with slow, unreliable internet service

Some poor rural communities have become technology dinosaurs, forced to use slow, unreliable internet that is slowing down the education process for students, Chico Harlan reports for The Washington Post(Post photo by Michael S. Williamson: Students at Monroe Intermediate in Lower Peach Tree, Ala. have to rely on spotty internet service)

"Schools with sub-par internet are scattered around the country, spanning from the far-flung communities of Alaska to the desert towns of New Mexico," Harlan writes. "The danger is that students who attend these schools will struggle for years with the critical tasks that now require online fluency: applying to colleges, researching papers, looking for jobs."

Evan Marwell,  founder and chief executive of the EducationSuperHighway, told Harlan, “This is essentially the definition of the digital divide in education. Students on the wrong side don’t have the same opportunity to compete.” Harlan reports, "While having only one provider in a region might mean higher cable or Internet bills in cities, in rural areas it can have profound consequences."

Monroe Intermediate, a K-8 school in rural Alabama, "depends on a nearly two-decade-old T1 line that, by the time it reaches dozens of individual computers, delivers speeds comparable to dial-up service," Harlan writes. "The school district’s administrators have tried for nearly two years to persuade AT&T to upgrade its service in the area, to no avail."

"Monroe has daily computer classes that start and stall; students sometimes need 30 minutes just to log in," Harlan reports. "It has 29 iPads, purchased with federal funding, that often go unused because of the hapless wi-fi. It has students who talk about the Internet not as a reliable tool, but as a temperamental one. It works better in the mornings, they say. It works better on this side of the room. It works better when the sun is out."

"Lower Peach Tree is one of the hardest-to-reach places in Alabama, at the far western edge of a county most famous for being the home of the late author Harper Lee," Harlan writes. "In much of the county, including at six other schools, Frontier Communications provides good broadband internet. But Lower Peach Tree sits on the other side of the Alabama River, AT&T’s territory, and is reachable from Monroeville—the county seat—only by intermittent ferry service or a looping, one-hour drive. Many who live in Lower Peach Tree work as loggers or truck drivers. The town of fewer than 1,000 residents has no restaurants or gas stations."

"Educators say that rural areas, with limited curriculums and resources, in particular could benefit from digital advances that allow students to reach far beyond their towns," Harlan writes. "Spanish classes could Skype with students in Mexico City. Advanced students could take high school classes remotely. The problem is that such small towns also provide a limited pool of customers for any company thinking about making an investment." Jerome Browning, a coordinator at Alabama’s Department of Education, told Harlan that Monroe “is a really, really small school in a precarious area. It doesn’t make any sense for vendors to come to that area.” (Read more)

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