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Broadband and the future of learning

Richard Adler | Sept. 3, 2014
High-speed broadband networks will not only accelerate learning, but they will also enable students to acquire the skills that they need to flourish in a post-industrial society.

Interestingly, the early development of connected learning has been led not by educators but by highly motivated young people whom Milton Chen, senior fellow at the George Lucas Educational Foundation, has described as "extreme learners" -- students who are determined to use technology to forge their own education pathways. Initially, access to connected learning has been provided mainly by extracurricular programs in places like libraries, museums and afterschool centers that offer training in how to use digital tools creatively (examples include YouMedia labs in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Miami, and HIVE Learning Networks in New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh).

At the postsecondary level, massively open online courses (MOOCs) have enabled thousands of individual learners to pursue a college-level education on their own. Recent announcements that Starbucks is partnering with Arizona State University to offer for-credit online courses to its employees and that AT&T is working with MOOC provider Udacity to sponsor "NanoDegree" technical training programs could be important milestones in expanding opportunities for independent learners.

Making connected learning happen
A new report from the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet describes the dramatic potential of connected learning and offers recommendations to overcome the barriers to its realization. Recognizing that the Internet can pose risks to young people at the same time that it offers them rich educational opportunities, the report, titled Learner at the Center of a Networked World, calls for the creation of "trusted environments" that keep young people safe when they are learning online. Much work remains to be done to define and construct such environments, but they will involve a combination of technological safeguards and human resources to protect students' privacy and security.

Any effective solution will have to balance young people's need for protection with their need for the freedom to explore and experiment in pursuing knowledge. For example, filtering programs that are legally required on school-based computers to shield students from "inappropriate content" should not be so restrictive as to block access to potentially valuable content.

Ensuring access for all students
Connected learning holds the potential to accelerate learning for all students, reducing disparities in student achievement. Given the enormous potential of the technology, it is critical that all students have access to it.

One immediate challenge is to ensure that schools have sufficient bandwidth to meet the needs of connected learners. Originally, federal policy focused on providing broadband connections to schools that typically had a computer lab and perhaps a few computers in each classroom. But bandwidth requirements are much greater when every student can be online at any time they are in school and may well be interacting with rich multimedia content. One of the findings of the Aspen Task Force is that "current metrics [that] indicate whether institutions (e.g., schools and libraries) are connected to broadband Internet need to be redefined to indicate whether [all] individuals within the institutions have adequate connectivity" -- that is, whether a school has enough bandwidth to support every student being online simultaneously throughout the day. And since students are increasingly likely to be using mobile personal devices rather than desktop computers as learning tools, schools need to provide wireless access in every classroom. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has recognized this need and has proposed modifying the E-Rate program to permit funding Wi-Fi in schools as well as basic connections to schools.


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