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Conquering the Digital Divide for Oklahoma’s Rural Schools

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One of the greatest technological challenges Oklahoma’s schools face is limited access to the bandwidth necessary to support today’s digital learning initiatives. President Barack Obama referred to this as the “digital divide” during a recent visit to the rural community of Durant, Oklahoma. Our state is predominantly rural, which creates an obstacle in delivering high bandwidth options to many schools outside of the state’s urban areas.

As schools apply technology in the classroom more than ever before, their bandwidth needs grow. Today’s students are using new digital educational applications and an expanded array of devices, including pcs, laptops and tablets. Additionally, today’s teaching methods utilize video conferencing, distance learning and online testing. As new applications and devices become available, technology in the classroom will continue to grow as time goes on.

For instance, Butner Public Schools, in the exceptionally rural community of Cromwell, received a $1 million grant from the Oklahoma State Department of Education. They invested the grant funds in computers, tablets and a variety of online learning tools. This grant was intended to provide more education opportunities for the students and teachers at Butner Public Schools, but at the time, the school’s connection was too slow to support their new technology.

Butner’s superintendent brought their issue to OneNet in hopes we could offer a better solution. It was quickly evident to the OneNet team that new fiber routes would have to be built in order to give Butner students the broadband necessary to support their new educational tools. Despite all obstacles, we sought new options to provide the school with the connection they needed. The school’s new high-speed connection has revolutionized teaching at Butner and achieved major academic improvements for its students. Butner is just one example of how OneNet strives go above and beyond to ensure students at rural schools have every educational opportunity available to students in our state’s urban centers.

As schools across the country begin to rely more heavily on Internet-based educational tools, technology must keep up. The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) states that “given existing trends, schools will need external Internet connections to their Internet service provider of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2014-2015 and of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students and staff by 2017-18.”

The SETDA recommendations provide an excellent benchmark for Oklahoma schools. Should these benchmarks be met, our state’s schools would be in a better position to compete. Personally, I believe these goals are essential to advance educational initiatives across our state. SETDA’s recommendations provide structure and an avenue for progress.

OneNet takes these recommendations to heart and is continually seeking ways to make these high-speed connections possible. OneNet is unique in that we are service-driven. Our mission is to advance technology across the state. As we work toward this mission, we keep the needs of those we serve as our top priority.

We’re dedicated to leveling the playing field for students and teachers in rural areas. President Obama mentioned that if we, as Americans, don’t give students what they need to be successful in the classroom, it is America’s loss, not just their loss. This determination to serve Oklahoma, especially our rural communities, enables us to maintain a greater focus on the needs of K-12 schools.

Through OneNet’s history in serving K-12 schools, we have discovered that federal funding often goes unspent year after year for schools in Oklahoma. I urge rural schools to educate themselves on their options for requesting funding for high-speed connections. It is simply because rural schools are not properly informed that they limit themselves on their requests for federal funding. Awareness is the tool to help schools know what to request, to understand what is available to improve the process and to ultimately obtain the bandwidth they need.

As OneNet continues to address the bandwidth needs of rural K-12 schools, we partner with the State Department of Education, superintendents and other educational groups to identify the specific needs of each rural area. Additionally, we partner with private telecommunications companies to ensure the needs we discover are being met.

OneNet sets out to power possibilities, and in today’s world, technology is perhaps the greatest possibility to expand education. Technology opens doors and provides opportunities for students, and we dedicate ourselves to ensuring those opportunities are available to every student in our state.

We will continue to create ties across the state with public and private entities, in order to be a catalyst that aids K-12s in addressing their bandwidth needs today and into the future. As President Obama said, students deserve a country that believes and invests in their dreams.

 

 

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