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Connect Students Online, Boost Your Country’s Gross Domestic Product?

Expanding and improving internet connectivity for schools can have a positive impact reaching beyond improving students’ access to information.

A new analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit released earlier this year finds that closing the digital divide in education can boost a country’s economy. Even simply increasing the speed of broadband for school buildings can lead to gains in a country’s gross domestic product, the authors of the report contend.

The researchers say that a quality internet connection, when used well, leads to improved academic results, which then produce higher salaries that support a healthier economy.

A 10 percent increase in school connectivity can increase the effective years of schooling for children by 0.6 percent, and raise the GDP per capita of a country by 1.1 percent, the analysis found.

“The biggest takeaway is the massive amount of potential that school connectivity has to close gaps that exist not just in education but in communities and beyond,” said Shivangi Jain, an EIU public policy consultant and lead economist.

“It gives children all over the world access to basically the same information… I don’t think any other approach has quite that same potential.”

Having access to the internet provides students a “wealth of resources” and enables new forms of learning, including through adaptive learning platforms, the report says, which plays a role in improving the quality of education students receive globally.

“Improved learning outcomes proliferate through adolescence and adulthood, leading to a wider range of higher education and career opportunities,” the report said. “Ultimately, these benefits to individuals are reflected in terms of higher incomes, better health and improved overall well-being.”

Basic Access Not Enough

However, Jain, one of the report’s authors, said governments and schools need to take steps to ensure the new connectivity is being used to its full potential, including by prioritizing digital learning education policy and overcoming barriers to integration, such as building infrastructure or obtaining devices. Access also needs to be affordable and high quality in terms of speed and reliability, the report said.

In the United States, 99 percent of schools are connected to fiber infrastructure, according to the report. But the quality of connection varies greatly among states and areas. Improving the bandwidth per student at schools nationwide to meet the country’s highest standard would increase the GDP by as much as 5.5 percent, according to the report.

In developing countries, connecting schools to the internet could have a more immediate impact on the wider community by enabling local entrepreneurship, introducing the gig economy, and providing access to online banking and improved emergency communications.

The report was sponsored by UNICEF and comes two years after the organization launched an initiative to connect every school to the internet. Globally, two-thirds of children between the ages of 3 or 17 — 1.3 billion — don’t have access to the internet.

It also comes after the U.S. approved $7 billion in federal aid for improved internet connectivity, spurred in part by the gaps in access that were spotlighted during the pandemic and schools’ abrupt pivot to remote learning. That funding, approved as part of the stimulus measure signed into law by President Biden, focus specifically on increasing students’ access to reliable internet services at home.

“This is the moment to be discussing this,” Jain said. “Children need access to connectivity regardless of where they are, and the pandemic really highlighted that … or at least enables people to see what [connectivity] can offer.”

Photo: AP Photo/Meg Kinnard

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Big Gaps Remain in Students’ Home Internet Access, Survey Reveals

When the pandemic forced schools to close last year, every student at Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools in Ohio already had a device, and most had access to the internet at home. As a result, the district’s director of technology, Mike Daugherty, was cautiously optimistic that they were well prepared for remote learning.

He quickly learned that having access to the internet and having the ability for an entire family to join hours-long video conferences were two different things. In many cases, when students’ connectivity fell short, Daugherty was left to urge families to upgrade their service.

While the country moves toward connecting more households to the internet than ever before, insufficient bandwidth remains a challenge for school districts and limits what tools students can use at home. A survey of 400 districts newly released by the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, underscores that basic access to the internet is not the barrier in many households – it’s an inability to use bandwidth-intensive content, such as video conferencing and streaming, that many districts would like to make a part of students’ lessons.

The survey of association members, who are district IT leaders, released last month found that 94 percent of districts faced challenges with videoconferencing during remote learning. For most of those districts (66 percent) the problems were caused by insufficient bandwidth. Respondents listed slow connections and multiple users as the top technical problems they faced.

“We saw that over and over again where a family was working from home due to COVID and they’re all on a generic, basic internet connection and nobody can get anything done,” Daugherty said. “That was such a struggle for us.”

Part of the problem is that the federally recommended broadband thresholds for households don’t meet the needs of remote learning, said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger. Families may have plenty of bandwidth to stream or download content, he said, but not enough to upload. And most households have two or more students, compounding the problem.

Inequities Persist

The experience has caused digital equity to rank as a top concern among districts’ IT leaders. Nearly all the survey respondents (97 percent) said concerns about quality of students’ home access increased. And the number of districts providing off-campus services doubled compared to the year before, reaching 95 percent.

Equity will certainly be on the minds of district leaders as they decide what educational technology to use moving forward, Krueger said.

“The good news is [bandwidth is] better in schools,” he said. Yet, “from a vendor perspective, they are going to have to think more inclusively.”

Inside school buildings, districts have made huge strides toward improving internet access. According to the survey, the majority of responding districts (61 percent) met the FCC’s long-term broadband goal, set in 2014. Three years ago, fewer than a third of districts met that standard, Krueger said.

Having students back in the building will help schools in the Chagrin school district, Daugherty said, especially since the district has a relatively small IT staff that isn’t equipped to provide home support.

Prior to the pandemic, Daugherty’s department fielded around five to 10 technical problems a day, mostly from students who broke or forgot their Chromebooks. During remote learning, that jumped to around 30 to 50 per day.

But home connectivity remains a concern because some practices from the pandemic will continue, Daugherty said.

He expects that his district will continue sending devices home with students over the summer break to lessen the summer academic slide. He also expects teachers to continue to record their lessons so students can access them later as needed.

Aside from equity concerns, district technology leaders listed improving cybersecurity and student data privacy as their top technology priorities.

According to the survey, more than three-quarters of districts (77 percent) do not have a full-time employee dedicated to network security. And only half of districts require cybersecurity training for the entire staff.

Other challenges IT leaders listed during the survey were:

  • Budget constraints and lack of resources
  • Lack of access to professional development
  • Existence of silos in the district

“There has to be a passionate advocacy on the part of technology leaders to articulate what we can do better by making sure we have equity built in,” Krueger said. “Digital isn’t going away. There’s a whole lot of things we can do a lot better, even at school.”

Photo: Alpha Wireless AW3170 panel antennas deployed in a private school district network near the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. (Credit: Business Wire via AP)

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