With each advancement in education technology, classrooms find innovative ways to combine curriculum with the digital world.
The reliance on connectivity and software was highlighted during the pandemic, as students were in the physical classroom one day and in the Zoom classroom the next. One issue that arose from this new classroom setting was the lack of broadband access faced by many students. As part of the Biden Administration’s America Jobs Plan, the White House recently released reports for each state highlighting infrastructure and broadband needs.
Its report for Arkansas found:
• More than 27 percent of Arkansans reside in an area where there is no broadband internet at minimally acceptable speeds.
• 54 percent of Arkansans have access to only one internet provider capable of providing an internet connection that runs at minimally acceptable speeds.
• 20 percent of Arkansas households do not have an internet subscription at all — likely due to affordability.
Many prominent Arkansans are working to fix the problem. Former Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola is working with the Kauffman Foundation Mayors’ Council to improve and create policies for broadband access.
“The availability of broadband is really a major infrastructure pillar,” Stodola told Arkansas Money & Politics. “I think we’ve known that access in two different contexts has been critically important. One is access in rural Arkansas and having adequate broadband that is usable, and then in the urban areas, the ability to afford to have broadband. Those issues have been consistent throughout.
“Even before the pandemic, a lot of people had to resort to all sorts of ways to access internet connection without having the benefit of total availability, so I would say that this issue has been with us for quite some time. The pandemic forced us to recognize how important broadband access is as a fundamental element for infrastructure programs throughout the United States.”
Dr. Jay Barth, professor emeritus of politics at Hendrix College, is another face in the mission to bring connectivity to all of Arkansas, especially local schools. Barth is the chief education officer for the city of Little Rock and a former member of the state board of education. He said students living in rural areas of the state face the issue of limited access to internet providers and connection speed, partly because of Arkansas’ landscape.
“A lot of the state is struggling with access because of the geography of the state,” he said. “Some of the most mountainous areas are very challenging; parts of west Arkansas are particularly challenging because of disconnect from some of the big providers, and the Delta is challenged with the combination of location and poverty there. We’re a challenged state in a lot of different ways, and that’s been the case for a good while. There are very few places in Arkansas that have all the answers, and that’s why this project requires a really nuanced approach, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. This is a complicated state in terms of our geography and our issues of poverty.”
Students living in urban areas are likewise at disadvantages for connections and affordability. Many assume that students and families living in the city have ample access to fast internet speeds and availability, but the reality is quite the opposite. The poverty rate in Little Rock is at 17.8 percent, or one out of every 5.6 residents, and 23.9 percent of the Fayetteville population lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The focus in Arkansas has been on rural access, getting broadband to places it’s not always been, but it’s also crucial to note that there is an urban issue, and that is affordability, and being sure that there is sustainable and affordable connectivity, even in urban areas,” Barth said. “We have really good broadband that is available across the city of Little Rock, but what we need to do is make [broadband] affordable for everyone to be able to take full advantage of the opportunities that come with it and promote digital.”
The challenge of affordability and lack of access in Little Rock was highlighted by the pandemic as students were quarantined for many months. Jimmy Hogg, director of technology for the Pulaski County Special School District, said around 2,000 district students were without internet access when schools were closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic. He said the district did everything it could to help, including installing Wi-Fi, purchasing hotspots and even providing each student a Chromebook.
“We had a lot of the same struggles that most districts around the state did, with students not having access to internet due to a lack of funding connections not offered in the area,” he said.
Arkansas isn’t the only state facing these issues. Local districts are receiving state and federal help. And President Joe Biden’s controversial America Rescue Plan would devote billions to infrastructure needs across the country including broadband access.
“The White House has recognized [the problem], and actions are in place,” Stodola said. “The American Rescue Plan has around $3.2 billion dedicated to expanding digital broadband, $7 billion for better broadband connectivity, $350 billion going toward state and local governments for infrastructure improvements, including broadband, and another $7.1 billion for internet at schools and libraries. If this plan passes, we’re going to see a lot of what we have been talking about.”
Partnerships between state officials and the community will be driving forces in the broadband expansion. Hogg said schools in the PCSSD went from 30 percent technology usage in the classroom to 100 percent during the pandemic, and with advancements in technology, he foresees continued reliance on connectivity.
“The majority of our students are going to go back to the traditional classroom. But I think now that we opened Pandora’s box on technology, we’re going to see more technology moving forward,” Hogg said. “A lot of what the government is proposing will be helpful for us. [State officials] are working with community partners to drive down the cost of bandwidth for students that don’t have the financial means to pay for connection. The emergency connectivity funds are going to reimburse us for some of the resources we’ve been providing for our students, and there are several [programs] on the horizon that are going to be real benefits to our students.”
With potential changes and improvements on the way, cohesive relationships among officials, schools and individuals are necessary to make the transition to more connectivity a smooth one.
“There’s going to be a critical need to coordinate from the state to the county to the locals on how they spend the money and make sure that we’re being as effective as we can,” Barth said. “We don’t need to be tripping over everyone; we really need a coordinated effort. This is important to create a more vibrant 21st century teaching and learning environment. For homework, for staying in touch with the school and ongoing research, we’re in for the long haul. Families sitting in their cars on a school parking lot to do homework is not a way in which our citizens should live. These programs are so crucial to transform education and educational opportunities.”
Arkansas is rated 41st in the country in broadband access, and that needs to change, Stodola said.
“The internet is the great equalizer from an educational standpoint, and we can eliminate the digital divide and get everybody on an equal playing field for middle and rural America as opposed to the high-density areas of the country,” Stodola said. “The educational capacity this could give is really exciting and a critical piece of infrastructure. Sure, we need roads and bridges and repairs, but we also need the ability to bring internet to everyone in a way that is accessible and usable.
“What electricity was in the 1930s in terms of expanding access to society is what expanding access to the internet is in the 2020s — transformative. Electricity was transformative for communities all across the South, and we’re going to see that same transformation soon with broadband.”