University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Technology Discussion gets Wired

In The View from the OEP on May 24, 2012 at 10:12 am

Last week, after the Office for Education Policy Conference, we hosted a luncheon for our Advisory Board and invited guests to discuss the technology needs in the state.Broadband Avenue Street Sign

Bevil Wooding, Chief Knowledge Officer of Congress-WBN, keynoted the event with a strong admonition to public policy officials to consider the long-term welfare of their constituents in their decision making and in the policies that are developed. Mr. Wooding painted a clear picture of the opportunities that could be developed in Arkansas to boost both economic development and educational achievement in the state.

This keynote was followed by a group of panelists, most of whom are well acquainted with the challenges associated with broadband development in the state.  The panel included AAEA Director (and OEP Advisory Board member) Richard Abernathy;  Senator Linda Chesterfieldwho serves as the chair of the Committee on Transportation, Technology, & Legislative Affairsformer state representative and Executive Director of the Arkansas Rural Education Association, Bill AbernathyMichael Abbiatti, Executive Director of the Arkansas Research & Education Optical Network (ARE-ON), Claire Bailey, Chief Technology Officer, State of Arkansas, and Grant Tennille, Executive Director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

The discussion was interesting, and quite lively, with each panelist chipping in knowledge from their specific area. The discussion that followed provided clarity about the solutions that public policy officials in Arkansas will have to address in the future.

  • There is not enough broadband/internet capability to implement online computer-adaptive Common Core assessments in 2014.
  • In general, access to internet and technology is necessary for an “adequate” education in the 21st century.
  • This problem is not necessarily limited to rural areas; there have been reports that there is insufficient broadband in more developed parts of the state when large numbers of students are on the internet at one time.
  • We do not know how much broadband we need (for Common Core assessments and in general).
  • We also do not know how much infrastructure is already in place. There are cables in the ground from different sources (public and private) but we do not know how much, where it is, and in what state it is in.
  • Significant financial investment will likely have to be made. Even if infrastructure (cables) is largely in place, “lighting up” cables is expensive.

Global MouseOne reason these problems persist is the lack of private and public sector agreement on solutions. The panel cited an example of market failure, that is, there is not sufficient demand in low population areas for private providers to invest in broadband infrastructure and provide service. This led to questions about justification for government stepping in to cover costs of infrastructure (i.e., how much should government be involved? Should government only be involved in infrastructure or also in operations of “lighting up” cables?). Private-public partnerships should be explored, and potentially pursued to address the issue of broadband access. Panel members said that connecting communities to the electrical grid was analogous to past electrical issues in which  electricity could not be accessed in rural parts of the state. This challenge was resolved through a public-private partnership wherein government subsidized the infrastructure development.

There is a secure optical network for higher education, but a law was passed recently that prevents organizations outside of higher education from using it. Perhaps this could be changed or repealed through the legislature. As Mr. Wooding eloquently stated, as we consider possibilities for providing broadband and internet access for the state, we must avoid a “silo” mentality, or one that compartmentalizes the resources available to the citizens of Arkansas. For example, we shouldn’t create a second optical network that only serves K-12. This issue can affect a number of stakeholders outside of education (business, community, providers, etc.) and they need to be brought together to come up with a collective solution. In order to create a strategic and cohesive plan for forward movement, we must conduct an audit of what infrastructure is currently in place.

This may be practically difficult and is potentially expensive. We have a long way to go–with limited time–to fully implement the Common Core Standards. For any solutions to be developed, it is clear that someone must take on the leadership responsibility in this issue. Leadership in this arena would require an individual or organization that can move beyond the “silo” mentality and connect resources and organizations throughout the state to improve access for all of our Arkansan citizens.

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