Panel: Broadband crucial to public education

Last modified: 1/6/2016 9:08:14 AM
CHARLEMONT — Broadband access may be as crucial to 21st-century public education as paper, pencil and textbooks were in the 20th century, according to education panelists who spoke this week at the Hawlemont Regional School.

Those children without broadband access at home not only miss out on learning opportunities their better-connected peers have, but when it comes to college, they could be at a disadvantage in comparison to students coming from places where broadband is as ubiquitous as electricity.

Speaking to an audience of at least 30 people at the Hawlemont Regional School, Mohawk Trail Regional School teacher Julia White said Mohawk school families with broadband at home can already log-on to Mohawk’s “PowerSchool” — an online grading system that gives both students and their parents information about the student’s grades and even their daily homework assignments.

“All the students’ homework is online and the teachers’ grade books are online,” explained White, a former Charlemont school committee member. While there is still debate about how much information should be put online, said White, there are many advantages in this system.

For instance, students now do their reports and essays on Google Docs — a cloud-based platform — so there’s no more “my dog ate my homework” excuses, because students can do their homework online, and teachers can access it. The students’ log-in and log-out times can also give teachers some indication of time spent on an assignment. Also, Google Docs makes it possible for students to collaborate on an assignment outside of the classroom. Because so much can be done online, more classroom time can now be spent in discussions and “inquiry-based learning,” she said.

“Our math curriculum has an online component, where students can watch video clips,” White continued. She said teachers can even get online while the students are working, and give them guidance as they work.

“And what happens to the kids that don’t have it?” asked a woman, referring to at-home broadband.

That’s the problem, White agreed. “If we have 80 percent of students with Internet access and 20 percent that don’t ­­­— the (Mohawk) library stays open an hour after school, but it’s difficult for those who are in sports or in a play (to get computer time). It becomes difficult for students to participate in all the things schools have to offer, if they don’t have (Internet) access at home.”

White said many teachers without broadband in their rural homes are now staying at school until 8 p.m., using Mohawk’s broadband to do their grading and curriculum work.

Mohawk’s new curriculum director, Rachel Porter, said the move to the “Partnership for 21st Century Learning Skills” (www.p21.org) is a mandate by the state. “We have inequity, where our students aren’t getting access that others have. We want our kids to be able to compete, and the state has no concept of our areas not having (broadband).”

Porter said the PowerSchool program is soon to be implemented at the pre-K through 6th-grade level, so grade-school parents can also see their children’s progress. She said schools are now sending emails to school families to keep them up-to-date about what’s happening in the schools, but families without email access don’t get school news as quickly.

Another website, Khan Academy, offers free online educational videos that parents and teachers can access, to help students with homework if there’s broadband at home, said Porter.

“We’re not the experts on everything,” White remarked, “but the Internet has experts on everything.”

Douglas Wilkins said he is now teaching four filled online courses at Greenfield Community College — all “video-based.” Wilkins, who lives in Heath, is co-chair of GCC’s business and information technology computer information systems and former technology director at Mohawk.

He said he has many single mothers and other students who couldn’t take these classes if they had to go into a classroom for them. Wilkins said his courses no longer require students to buy textbooks.

“All my content is computer-based,” he said. “You can’t learn how to do a spreadsheet out of a textbook. You really have to present the context, because it takes too long in books for the students to discover them. (Students) have to learn to think, and that’s really important.”

Tyler Memorial Library Director Andrea Bernard said part of her job as a librarian is to keep track of open-education, online resources — even full textbooks that might be available to read online.

“College students regularly report that they can’t afford a textbook. But open-education resources help them to get the best mileage out of their education,” she said. “It’s important to look at the big picture.”

Before coming to Charlemont, Bernard was a research assistant with the Harvard Open Access Project and Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She also worked for at least 25 years as a child development specialist, working with young children and their families, teaching at colleges, and writing and presenting talks at conferences and workshops. Bernard said that the United Nations, through its UNESCO program, has a goal to focus on open-education resources that can be made available to everybody. Also, the U.S. Department of Education has started a “Go Open” campaign, urging states and school districts to save money by using openly licensed educational materials.

The forum on the role of broadband in public education was sponsored by the Charlemont Broadband Committee, which is trying to get enough townspeople to preregister for high-speed Broadband through WiredWest. At the beginning of October, the town needed almost 100 additional households to sign up, before Charlemont met the minimum required to be served by the collaborative town network. Now the town needs about 35, said committee Chairman Bob Handsaker. Heath and Rowe have already met the sign-up requirements to have a broadband network build-out through WiredWest. Hawley needs about 21 more households for the minimum, although the town is looking at a hybrid system of wireless and fiber optics, because it can’t afford to spend $1 million on a full last-mile fiber-optic network.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
dbroncaccio@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277




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