Richmond County schools seek to close digital divide

Richmond County schools have taken a leap in closing the digital divide by installing wireless Internet in virtually every middle and high school, opening the door for more technology-rich learning.

The $1 million project began in October and used federal Race to the Top funding to equip 18 schools with a 1 gigabit per second Internet speed, one of the fastest connections available.

Every school in the district has had Internet access, but it was mostly confined to computer labs, media centers or certain hotspots in the buildings.

Complete wifi in the middle and high schools (except Butler High because of ongoing construction) will expand the Bring Your Own Technology program, which allows students to bring iPads, smartphones and laptops to use for research and activities in class.

The program was piloted this fall at Hephzibah High, Dorothy Hains Elementary and Richmond County Technical Career Magnet schools – the only three schools to have had wifi previously because they are newly constructed buildings.

“It’s a huge move,” said Robert Jankus, the director of information technology. “If they need to look something up, they can do it immediately. During class they might say ‘I wonder what that word or that concept means, I’ll look it up when I get home.’ And by the time they get home they don’t care anymore. This changes that whole dynamic.”

Richmond County’s effort comes at a time when there is a national push to strenghten Internet capacity in all classrooms. Almost all schools in the U.S. have Internet access, but 72 percent do not have enough bandwidth speed for all students in a class to adequately search Google or play educational videos at once, according to Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a non-profit working to increase Internet access in schools.

In June, President Obama proposed the ConnectED initiative, which will put high speed and wireless Internet in all public schools within five years.

It will be funded through a reform of the existing federal program that provides schools with discounts on telecommunications costs known as E-rate.

Marwell said digital accessibility is vital to putting American students on par with worldwide competitors. Countries that are beating the U.S. in education rankings are also miles ahead in Internet access.

Every school in Korea is connected to high-speed broadband, Ireland will equip 100 mbps to every school next year and Finland will reach their goals in 2015.

“If we don’t do this for our kids, our kids are going to be left behind,” Marwell said. “The countries beating us in education rankings all understand how important Internet access is.”

Jankus said the district is searching for additional funding to install wireless Internet in all 35 elementary schools. Although officials have applied for E-rate funding for the project, it has not been awarded.

John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, a consulting firm that helps schools navigate E-rate, said that is because of the many setbacks to E-rate that will hopefully be reformed by Obama’s ConnectED initiative.

E-rate was established in 1997 and has remained virtually unchanged since. Half of the money goes to phone service and most of what’s left goes toward putting Internet in the front door of schools, not to support wifi and other infrastructure upgrades in classrooms.

“A lot of the stuff is there, but being able to use it effectively takes bandwidth,” Harrington said. “It’s such a moving target that no longer is it about connectivity but capability.”

With wireless connections now in Richmond County, principals are preparing to launch the BYOT program by briefing students and parents on the rules and training teachers on how technology can enhance teaching.

Pine Hill Middle School Principal Glenda Collingsworth said most of her teachers, which is a young faculty, will welcome devices in their classrooms.

After signing an agreement on the rules, students will be able to use devices at designated times – indicated by a green or red light sign posted in class.

They can use their iPhone to research concepts on Google, use a laptop or iPad for group work, and type homework assignments and e-mail them to their teacher.

Students without their own devices can share with a classmate or use one of the few classroom computers or netbooks shared between classes.

“That’s going to just create an ease in obtaining all the information and not having to wait for maybe the three computers in the classrooms or not being able to go in the lab because it’s booked by another class,” Collingsworth said. “If you have a question and you need to Google it and look it up, you can just pull your iPad out. It’s going to take instruction to a different level in the county.”

Renee Kelly, the principal of the Richmond County Career Technical Magnet School, said the program has been successful at her school since it piloted in the fall. To cut back on abuses, she allows students to text or play on their tablets during lunchtime.

“We live in a society that’s on a super highway as far as technology so it’s not about whether to use it, it’s about knowing how to use it in the proper setting,” she said. “Because our society has driven to a mecca of technology, we have to help our students embrace that and learn to use it in a positive way. There’s no turning back now.”

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