James B. Phares
Star Wars creator George Lucas, who founded the George Lucas Education Foundation, has called high-speed Internet access for students, schools and libraries a “digital civil right.”
I believe Internet access is not only a civil right it is the lifeline for our students and their future success. In a state like West Virginia where our geography can limit Internet access, broadband infrastructure improvement efforts are vital. I, along with the West Virginia Board of Education, know that modern Internet access is an important part of transforming our schools from 20th century buildings to 21st century learning centers. As a matter of fact, the board dedicated an entire section of its recent response to the Governor’s education audit to empowering learning through technology. (http://wvde.state.wv.us/audit-response/learning-through-technology.html)
One way this change is taking place is with the help of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In 2010, West Virginia was awarded a $126 million BTOP grant to provide or improve access to underserved areas, of which West Virginia has many.
BTOP is helping West Virginia schools overcome enormous challenges by extending fiber optic cables and equipment to much of our state. This means schools that can’t provide virtual learning courses or can’t allow enough simultaneous student access will soon have bandwidth opportunities for personalized learning anytime from anywhere. Students are on the verge of having broadband access to the same computer-based tools as any other student in the country, or even the world. And that’s a game-changer for West Virginia.
Already, BTOP-funded broadband expansion is allowing educators and students to access digital content through interactive lessons, videos, project- and problem-based learning activities, videoconferencing sessions, webinars, forums, social learning sites, virtual courses, and online credit recovery options.
Specifically, expanded broadband has enhanced the use of the West Virginia Virtual School. Established by the Legislature in 2000, the Virtual School program helps students bridge the barriers of time, distance and inequities. The program provides high quality courses delivered via technology and promotes equity in course offerings. During the last school year, the West Virginia Virtual School enrolled nearly 3,000 students in nearly 3,400 courses, serving all 55 counties.
Some students choose to enroll in virtual classes because of scheduling conflicts, or to explore courses not offered at their school. Many schools also use virtual courses when they can’t find highly qualified teachers to teach courses students need.
For example, five weeks into the fall semester in McDowell County, students in four geometry classes found themselves without a qualified teacher. With the improved bandwidth, the West Virginia Virtual School was able to provide online courses and webinars to the students.
In Grant County, students could not access virtual courses needed for graduation. Increased broadband has allowed them to make up lost time by attending online summer sessions.
In Mercer County, expanded Internet access is allowing struggling students to recover credit through the West Virginia Department of Education’s OnTarget program. The program helps students recover high school credits through flexible scheduling and Internet coursework so they can still graduate.
In Lincoln County, a lack of adequate bandwidth not only prevented students from accessing online courses, but also their online practice tests timed out. In addition, online administrative tasks were interrupted and most Internet-based tasks were unusable. With the improved broadband, access is being restored.
In today’s digital economy, most offices and places of business could not operate even one day without adequate Internet access. Yet that is what many of our schools have had to endure until BTOP began to improve access.
Broadband is no longer a luxury. It is, as George Lucas said, a “civil right” necessary for full participation in the 21st century. That’s why we must continue to support such programs, especially for states like ours so we can equalize educational opportunities and help our students learn anytime, anywhere.
(Phares is state superintendent of schools.)