Innovations in Distance Education When Broadband Is Not an Option


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This guest post comes from Judd Pittman, special consultant to the secretary of education for STEM at the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author.

State leaders are at a pivotal moment: Let’s reimagine learning while addressing inequitable access to broadband internet — not just now, this summer or next year, but for the long term.  

According to Common Sense media, about 1 in 4 students do not have access to broadband internet suitable for educational purposes because of geography or cost. Reimagining learning includes students having access to rich, digital content at any location, including at home. In Pennsylvania, the department of education has been working with public television stations on a new resource to help bridge the digital divide: datacasting. 

Datacasting is a technology to securely send data files — like videos and documents — through a television broadcast signal, bringing digital content to any location that can receive a television signal. Datacasting reaches areas where internet access does not and creates opportunity when the cost of an internet connection can create challenges. (Datacasting generally costs less than broadband access.)  

As Pennsylvania Department of Education leaders and educators explore the opportunities that datacasting provides, they realize this innovation impacts learners of all ages: preschoolers in early childhood centers such as Head Start programs; K-12 students with homework assignments, remote learning and summer school; adolescents and young adults in the juvenile justice education system; and adults in workforce training programs.  

In addition to Pennsylvania, IndianaMichiganSouth Carolina and South Dakota designated some of their COVID-19 response reserve to expand their state’s datacasting or education channel capabilities.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to dedicate $15 million of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief  to connectivity for remote learning made it possible to establish the infrastructure and support for educators and learners to implement datacasting.

Teachers and students in multiple states are participating in datacasting pilot programs, offering pedagogical insights for developing best practices. For exampleat present funding levels, Indiana is serving 1,200 students in Jennings County, and will serve about 8,200 households overall. Additionally, South Carolina has targeted 34 school districts for the program and five districts are currently in the pilot.  

With support from the American Institutes for Research and Pennsylvania PBSthe Pennsylvania Department of Education has formed the Innovations in Distance Education Community of Practice with other states to share resources, best practices and lessons learned among policymakers and practitioners. The Community of Practice meets biweekly to learn from each other’s successes and barriers, to share responses to critical questions, and to assess the benefits and risks of datacasting as an educational policy.  

States that have not considered datacasting as a resource to help combat the digital divide are welcome to join this Community of Practice. If you are interested in exploring options for when broadband is not available, reach out to me, Judd R. Pittman, via email: Let’s reimagine learning together. 

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