Too Many kids on the wrong side of the digital divide

by David Hill
Thursday, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius announced new state grants that will help 12 school districts provide students with the high-speed Internet connections needed to complete homework and access other online learning opportunities.
Over 30 districts applied for the grants, which Smith and Cassellius believe highlights the significant need for rural high-speed Internet access.
School District 564, Thief River Falls, was one of the schools identified as receiving a grant. According to the news release issued shortly after the teleconference with news media, Thief River Falls is expected to receive $30,484.
Superintendent Bradley Bergstrom said they were very excited about this opportunity for kids in the District.
During a teleconference Thursday morning, Lt. Gov. Smith said these grants would allow schools to fill the gaps in Internet access that puts some students at a disadvantage.
“Too many Minnesota students are on the wrong side of the digital divide. These grants will help level the playing field for students in Greater Minnesota by providing them the same educational opportunities as their friends and family in the cities,” said Smith. 
Cassellius said the Minnesota Department of Education was excited to have this opportunity to pilot this program. She noted that as the state closes the gaps in Internet coverage and the use of the Internet in teaching, they’re seeing problems with inequities.
The grants are anticipated to provide students with the high-speed Internet connections needed to complete homework and access other online learning opportunities. Without this funding, these students would lack access to reliable high-speed Internet, putting them at a competitive disadvantage with their urban peers. 
Cassellius said the grants will be used in a variety of ways including providing mobile hots spots, data cards, chrome books, and of course work training and support.
School District 564
Tim Vagle, technology coordinator for School District 564, Thief River Falls, said the grant is for three years. In Thief River Falls, the plan is to provide a Kajeet 4G-LTE hotspot device to students not served by an Internet provider or who can’t afford Internet access. Kajeet provides access outside the classroom so students can complete their required assignments and homework.
Vagle said the product looks like an oversized hockey puck and is designed to work much like a cellular hotspot with a cellphone. The nice part about it is that it’s already filtered as an educational device – it’s not designed for streaming movies, so it can’t be used for such things as renting movies. It also can be shut down at night.
Vagle said there are many students and families in the District who are outside Internet access areas or cannot afford Internet access. As of September, about 35 percent of the students (319) in grades 6 through 12 in the District, qualify for free and reduced meals. This will be the first criteria in deciding who qualifies for the program.
Vagle said the District plans to continue to look at how the it can fund the program beyond the three years. The advantage of this program now is that it allows the District to try the device and see if it’s the way they want to go. It is also cellular signal-based, which helps in a district such as ours where there are multiple Internet providers but none of which reach every household in the District. (There are four Internet providers in the District.)
The grant also came at a time when Northwest Service Cooperative had worked out a purchasing agreement with Kajeet. Vagle said instead of having to pay $200 or so per device, they will be purchasing the devices for $49.99 each plus a subscription fee. The District would like to get the cost to students and families down to $10 per month, but currently they are looking at $19.99 per month. The grant will cover the subscription cost for those who qualify; there will be no cost to participants during the grant period.
As a result of the grant, Vagle said the District plans to roll out 20 devices at the beginning of the next school year month. He said they have an idea how many students need the device, but they will be conducting indepth surveys to determine exactly how many devices are needed.
Grant Funding
$500,000 was allocated for this program, but 33 applications amounted to $1.3 million in requests, which Cassellius said, demonstrates the interest in this program. She said they will continue to push for these innovative programs.
“Technology is a part of Minnesota classrooms. If we want all students to be successful, we need to make sure we are providing them the tools they need,” said Cassellius. “Where a student lives and their family income should not determine whether they are able to complete their schoolwork or not.”
Smith said she has vivid memories of talking to students and teachers about how important this program is. She recalled talking with students and teachers in Roseau and how a bus had been outfitted with Internet. During their long school bus ride home, students would do their homework, but when they arrived at their destination they wouldn’t want to leave the bus because some of them didn’t have access to the Internet at their homes.
Fertile-Beltrami and Lake of the Woods school districts in northern Minnesota also received grants. Fertile-Beltrami received $41,922, and Lake of the Woods $49,840.