Education

Facebook founder is now helping bring high-speed Internet to public schools

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Students require lightning fast Internet to take advantage of the best electronic learning tools, and schools are under mounting pressure to deliver.

According to a nonprofit called EducationSuperhighway, most schools lack fast enough connections to teach students digital skills, like basic computer programming. So the San Francisco-based firm is working with K-12 school districts to remove any roadblocks to high-speed broadband Internet.

After all, few things are more distracting to students than a garbled video tutorial, or interactive content that won’t load.

Education Superhighway just launched its program nationwide today, with an unspecified amount of funding from the Gates Foundation, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million fund Startup: Education, and other foundations. This is Startup: Education’s second known investment; the first was in Panorama Education, the brainchild of a 22-year-old Yale graduate.

“When schools and teachers have access to reliable Internet connections, students can discover new skills and ideas beyond the classroom” said Zuckerberg in a statement. “The future of our economy and society depend largely on the next generation using and building new online tools and services, and I’m glad to support EducationSuperHighway’s work.”

On the company’s website, schools can register for a simple network speed test. Over 600,000 teachers, students, and administrators have already taken the test. The results show that over 70 percent of America’s public schools lack the broadband they need.

Schools are then offered simple instructions to upgrade their infrastructure, while reducing costs. EducationSuperhighway chief executive Evan Marwell has found that most schools are overpaying for their broadband Internet.

Marwell, a serial entrepreneur, said he settled on this particular problem as it’s “really solvable.” The timing is right for this kind of initiative; Marwell has found high-profile supporters in the tech sector. Zuckerberg has taken a personal (and arguably professional) interest in expanding broadband Internet. He recently announced an initiative called Internet.org to bring digital connectivity to the world‘s poorest nations.

The EducationSuperhighway vision is also aligned with government agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is working closely with the Obama administration to connect 99 percent of America’s K-12 students to gigabit broadband and robust Wi-Fi.

The president recently asked the FCC to revamp and modernize its E-Rate program, which subsidizes Internet services for schools and libraries. In a 2012 report on connectivity in schools, the FCC found 80 percent of E-Rate recipients did not find their broadband to be sufficient, with 78 percent saying they needed more bandwidth.

In the nonprofit’s early days, Marwell was frequently asked whether students could benefit for increased Internet access. Some education experts argue that the Web, with all of its applications and games, is a distraction for students. However, Marwell said he rarely receives this question anymore, as it’s generally assumed that the Internet is a boon for learning.

He offers an example of two schools in Texas, Cypress Grove Intermediate and Oakwood Intermediate, which recently launched an after school program in computer science. Like most education institutions in America, most of their teachers lacked coding skills. But the school was equipped with fast Wi-Fi, so students could access interactive content through services like Codecademy, Coursera, or Code.org.

“We’re seeing a groundswell of activity with teachers trying to adopt new innovative, technology-friendly tools to teach their students,” said Marwell in an interview. “It used to be about access; but now the conversation is about speed and capacity, and that’s what we’re bringing to schools.”