Are we talking about broadband connectivity or are we talking about the video-conferenced classroom? The two are not the same in terms of need, use, relevance, cost, local options… arguably, they do not require the same type of statewide, coordinated network. And simple broadband connectivity vs. synchronous, virtual classrooms raise different questions around statewide equality in access to educational opportunities.
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There seems to be a confound in the debate on just what to do about the Idaho Education Network (IEN) at this juncture, both in the short term with the Otter Administration pushing for a “bridge contract,” and in the long term, seeking alternatives to the existing configuration of the IEN in a bid process that will meet the muster for E-Rate support beginning in July 2016. That confound revolves around the inarguable need for Idaho schools to have broadband connectivity — for access to online curricular resources, on-line testing, administrative tools and asynchronous, online courses versus the statewide, synchronous video-conference ability, that Qwest and ENA lobbyists sold to the Legislature as a 21st century solution to the Idaho Constitution’s charge to ensure equal opportunities to a quality K-12 education across the state.
As far as broadband Internet access, the situation has changed since 2008 when broadband had yet to be defined as even 4 Mbps downstream. In many small Idaho communities high schools did not have a robust connection to the Internet. Even at that time, however, in those small towns served by the independent telephone companies (i.e., not Qwest), the federal government had funded a build-out of Internet connectivity through FCC-administered high cost funds, and affordable access was available. Now, even with broadband connectivity redefined by the FCC as 25 Mbps downstream, all Idaho high schools can find local access to the Internet at this speed. There are (obviously) the connections built or contracted for by the IEN. In addition, there are connections available for many schools at a lower cost/Mbps than IEN charges, through local Internet service providers.
Furthermore, the number of quality online resources for K-12 education — curriculum, courseware, skill-practice, independent learning, testing and administration — have totally exploded. Many of the favorites of teachers and students — Kahn Academy and free courses from the nation’s leading universities — are free to users. Also freely available are many teaching and learning resources that the Idaho Commission for Libraries provides, including teacher resources and catalogued video material from PBS. All it takes to make use of these is that robust connection to the Internet.
The recent audit of how the IEN [pdf] — a statewide network built specifically to enable teachers to instruct students in specially equipped distant classrooms, in real-time, using video cameras — showed that the IEN has not realized the dream. Half of the use of the IEN for this video instruction was intra-district in three large school districts (Meridian, Bonneville and Cassia). Were these school districts sharing their IEN instruction with rural students, we might credit the IEN with some success in providing equality of access. Instead we should recognize that the IEN acts as a mighty state subsidy to a handful of school districts and is serving fewer than 1,000 rural students at a cost of perhaps more than $10,000 per student per quarter. Or, to put it more generously, taxpayers are providing a very, very costly Internet connection to those schools that are simply using the IEN for broadband access.
Educators who have analyzed the effectiveness of different modes of technology-enhanced distance learning are clearly enthusiastic about the ways in which schools can use online resources. They are uniformly less and less impressed with the synchronous (real-time), video-connected classroom experience, particularly for K-12 students.
The current scoping and requests for proposals that the state has issued prematurely narrow the vision on how best to provide broadband facilities to Idaho schools, with equal access to a quality K-12 education. What if the best course is for the Legislature to simply provide direct funding to school districts for broadband Internet connectivity? There may be no need for a statewide managed network. Perhaps the 2008 legislation that created the IEN —penned at the urging of a specific telecommunications company for a specific technology for teaching methods that are now viewed as less than ideal — should be revisited or repealed? Today’s IEN issues may serve as a reminder to legislators of the risks of legislation that mandates particular equipment and technologies and lacks resilience as best practices, online options and new technologies evolve.
At the very least, it would be helpful for those trying to sort out options and take action to be aware of the significant differences between simply connecting Idaho schools to the World Wide Web and connecting two dedicated classrooms in Idaho to each other.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.