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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.

Extending access beyond the classroom
Since learning may take place anywhere and anytime, connected learners also need broadband access outside of school. Although 70% of U.S. households now have broadband, millions of households still do not. Private-sector initiatives are helping to expand access. For example, Comcast's Internet Essentials program offers low-income families broadband service for $9.95 a month, along with the option to purchase an Internet-ready computer for under $150 and free digital literacy training. In its first three years of operation, the program has provided affordable broadband service to more than 350,000 households.

There are also promising public-private partnerships to increase access. In Forsyth County, Georgia, the local school district worked with the Chamber of Commerce to create a directory of free Wi-Fi locations in the community and to provide participating businesses with signs indicating where free Wi-Fi is available. And a middle school in Manchester, Tenn., that has equipped all sixth-graders with iPads had convinced local businesses to open their Wi-Fi hotspots to students to maximize the benefits of their technology tools.

The growth of broadband has provided a powerful new platform for learning. When policymakers consider an update to the laws that govern telecommunications (see "Rethinking communications regulation," Computerworld, Aug. 19), they need to recognize that communications networks are no longer just conduits for information and entertainment, but have become vital resources for many other uses such as education. Communications policy and educational policy are now intertwined. To ensure that the interests of education are taken into account when new telecom rules are formulated, educators will need to have a seat at the table. But if they are to participate in shaping new legislation, they will need to inform themselves about the technology and its educational potential.

Connected learning and the future of education
Brick-and-mortar schools will not go away, at least in the foreseeable future, but they will change. "Blended learning" describes a new educational model that integrates new digital learning into existing classrooms. In this approach, teachers shift from instructing groups of students to acting as mentors to students working individually on their own assignments (a change in role that has been described as teachers going from being "the sage on the stage to a guide on the side").

A study from the KnowledgeWorks Foundation envisions a new student-centered ecosystem in which "learning adapts to each child instead of each child trying to adapt to school." The Foundation predicts that "personalization [of education] will become the norm" and that "learners and their families will create individualized learning playlists reflecting their particular interests, goals and values." Rather than being places where all education takes place, schools become base camps from which students connect to the wider world to pursue their learning.


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