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Richmond County schools seek to close digital divide

Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 9:20 PM
Last updated Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 1:09 AM
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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.

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Ashley Fowler (left) and Jose Ufret with Net Planner Systems, Inc., install cable for wireless access points.  TODD BENNETT/STAFF
Ashley Fowler (left) and Jose Ufret with Net Planner Systems, Inc., install cable for wireless access points.

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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jkline 01/09/14 - 04:25 am
Is this really better?

Do American school children now take tests with the equivalent of an encyclopedia in front of them? If this is so, must children today no longer need to learn anything, except how to look up answers?

bubbasauce 01/09/14 - 06:29 am
I'm not sure but I think you

I'm not sure but I think you hit the nail on the head.

avidreader 01/09/14 - 06:54 am
Those Who Teach, Teach!

BYOT is in full swing in my classroom. It's not about the mindless use of cell phones and pads to substitute for structured learning. It's about kids taking their educations seriously and exploring possibilities. It's also about differentiation in learning. Kids can solve problems with quick research and explore what is interesting to them, instead of focusing strictly on what is being funneled to them via the teacher. My students are loving BYOT and I can honestly say that I have not had one single problem with cell phone misuse. I'm not naive. Some problems will eventually occur, but overall, BYOT is a wonderful plan.

I always read McManus's reports on education. Many commentaries constantly slam the lack of parental participation. I'm guessing that BYOT is going to raise a few hackles also. However, there are two solid truths about modern, public education -- many parents are slackers and technology is more than a passing fad, it's a way of life. Effective teachers understand that both of these realities must be dealt with. We have become surrogate parents, and kids are wired from brain to thumbs. I wish we would have had WiFi in the classrooms ten years ago.

For those of you who may want to explore the positives, please type "smart phones in the modern classroom" into your Google bar and check out some of the nifty examples of BYOT. The concept is here to stay, and we must embrace it or get left behind.

Many thanks to the superintendents and BOE members who fought for WiFi. The times they are a changin'.


corgimom 01/09/14 - 09:20 am
Students are supposed to

Students are supposed to share their personal devices with others?


Wonder how that works, for a child to borrow a device to take home to do homework.

soapy_725 01/09/14 - 10:04 am
knowledge funneled through government media control. Say 1984

knowledge funneled through government media control. Say 1984

Mr. Thackeray
Mr. Thackeray 01/09/14 - 10:25 am
Facts are not what we should

Facts are not what we should be teaching, they can be readily found. We need to do a better job of teaching critical thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. That is where our schools are failing as are the test we administer.

jkline 01/09/14 - 12:29 pm
7th Grade should be the earliest for student automation

To me, none of this automated stuff should be used at all in school until the children know how to operate well without it. Grammar school should be automation-free. The children should learn to use their brains before learning to use a machine. Using machines from the start makes them completely and permanently dependent on them, sort of like a modern second lieutenant with his GPS. With machines, they do not have even to learn multiplication tables. Thanks to "spell checking," they do not even have to learn how to spell English words. The machine does it for them. To take this approach is to do permanent damage that will disadvantage the child's mental ability for the rest of his life. It does a child no favours to make him permanently dependent upon a device that needs batteries, unable to operate without it.

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