INDIANAPOLIS — Elle Cox is a good student who likes doing her homework, but some evenings it takes a 10-mile trip to the nearest McDonald’s.
In January, the fourth-grader in rural Decatur County joined a growing number of Indiana students who are carting home iPads instead of textbooks. Elle loves the device but her home Internet service is often so slow, she can’t complete her assignments. When that happens, someone in her family drives her to McDonalds for its fast and free wireless connection.
“The technology is great,” said Deborah Nobbe, Elle’s grandmother, “but not everybody is ready for it.”
Schools throughout Indiana are using technology to help students learn. They’ve spent millions rigging classrooms with interactive systems, in some cases replacing textbooks with digital devices.
But too often schools and students lack the fast, reliable Internet connections to support the digital shift, say administrators and education advocates. In some cases, teachers are pulling back on the use of digital devices, as principals and superintendents worry about how they’ll pay for increasing Internet demand.
“Our job is to prepare our students for the real world, and that means giving them the 21st century job skills they need,” said Johnny Budd, superintendent of Decatur County Community Schools. “For their sake, we need to make this work.”
The problem for most Indiana schools and students isn’t Internet access. It’s speed.
Legislation deregulating telecommunications in Indiana in 2006 lead to a boom in connectivity. Public and private dollars poured into building broadband infrastructure. Within a few years Indiana went from ranking among the worst states for Internet access, according to the Federal Communications Commission, to being one of the best.
Now, nearly all school buildings and libraries have basic or better Internet access, paid for mostly by a federal program known as E-Rate. The program, overseen by the FCC, is funded through a monthly fee on telephone service of about $2.90 per user.