Va. officials, educators talk tech needs in schools


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HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — Internet demand is growing in Virginia schools, but some rural localities — including those in the Shenandoah Valley — experience challenges to improving broadband access for their students.

Educators and technology professionals gathered last Tuesday at Harrisonburg High School for a panel discussion with Virginia Education Secretary Anne Holton and Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson to explore the issue.

"Look at yourselves as guinea pigs, and let us know what's working and what's not so that we can learn from your experience for the rest of the state," Holton told the group.

Vince Scheivert, chief information officer for Albemarle County Public Schools, said bridging the gaps between areas of high and low broadband access is critical for rural students both during and after school.

"It's a matter of urgency at this point. When we talk three years or four years, well that's a high school career," he said. "We need to start moving on an idea."

Brette Arbogast, director of technology for Appomattox County Public Schools, said he was looking into bringing together schools and county government to shift broadband access according to peak usage hours.

Scheivert discussed a possible joint system between participating school divisions to save individual costs.

Panelists talked about partnerships between other state agencies like the Virginia Department of Transportation and public safety offices to increase access to existing broadband. Scheivert says he needs to find a way to expand access for schools under the assumption that state funding will not increase at the same rate that broadband demand increases.

"It's not that there's a lack of fiber capability in the state of Virginia," he said. "What there is, is a lack of sharing of fiber capabilities in the state of Virginia."

The state started a partnership with San Francisco-based nonprofit EducationSuperHighway last year to identify ways to increase broadband access in public schools. The first phase of Virginia's partnership consisted mostly of data collection from the school divisions.

On Tuesday, Tony Swei, EducationSuperHighway co-founder, spoke about the partnership's next phase.

"We want to create a business case for some of these interconnections," he said. "It's going to vary quite a bit. A rural area can get very expensive if there's a mountain in the way."

Holton agreed that there's a need for urgent action.

"The technological capacity has grown so quickly, and the K-12 systems are taking advantage of it. . But you can't simply buy Chromebooks and put them in the classrooms if you don't have the Internet capacity to back it up," she said.

Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, said after the panel discussion that funding is always a big hurdle from the legislative side. But bringing parties together, as the event did, is necessary to find broadband solutions for rural communities, he said.

Holton and Jackson later went on a classroom tour, where the secretaries met with students using Chromebooks in the classroom.

"I'm fascinated to see the kids that are using the Chromebooks and the way they're able to collaborate," Jackson said.

After the panel discussion, Holton went to John W. Wayland Elementary School in Bridgewater, where she met with students and teachers. In the school's engineer-it lab, which was converted from the former woodshop when the building housed a middle school, Holton asked children about their projects made from recyclable materials.

Susan Eckenrode's second-grade class told Holton they thought more schools should have a facility like the lab, which gathers household recyclables and discarded items, like food jars and fabric scraps, for children to build original creations.

Following the class, she and other staff met with Holton to discuss STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — in the school and around Rockingham County.

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Information from: Daily News-Record, http://www.dnronline.com

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