Balancing Connectivity and Student Safety on the Internet
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E-Rate is a federal program that supports connectivity in elementary and secondary schools and libraries by providing discounts on Internet access, telecommunications services, internal network connections, and basic maintenance. To apply, schools, school districts, and consortia complete an annual application process that includes a technology needs assessment and a plan for how the connections supported by E-Rate will help the applicant achieve its educational mission. A competitive bidding process is conducted to select a provider to supply the desired infrastructure. Applicants can receive discounts on these services ranging from 20 to 90% depending on their level of poverty and geographic location. Hardware, software, professional development, and other inputs required to take advantage of this connectivity must be purchased by schools and cannot be paid for with E-Rate money.
Under the direction of the FCC, E-Rate has made up to $2.25 billion available each year since its inception in 1998, providing crucial support for the expansion of Internet access in schools. Demand for funding now significantly exceeds the E-Rate cap, particularly as schools seek to provide classrooms with enough bandwidth to support the use of multimedia and interactive applications by many students at the same time (Funds for Learning, 2009). A recent national survey of E-Rate applicants found that the majority of schools could not sustain their current levels of Internet connectivity to classrooms without E-Rate funds.
Schools' eligibility for E-Rate money is contingent on compliance with several federal laws designed to ensure student privacy and safety on the Internet. The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires any school that funds Internet or internal network access with E-Rate money to implement filters that block access to content that may be harmful to minors, including obscenity and pornography. CIPA also requires schools receiving E-Rate discounts to teach online safety to students and to monitor their online activities. Schools that do not implement these protections and policies may lose their E-Rate funding and thus their ability to provide online services for their students.
Ensuring student safety on the Internet is a critical concern, but many filters designed to protect students also block access to legitimate learning content and tools such as blogs, wikis, and social networks that have the potential to support student learning and engagement. CIPA prohibits educators from disabling filters on the spot when minors are using computers, even to allow students to access erroneously blocked web-sites with legitimate instructional value. On the other end of the spectrum, some schools and districts filter students' online activities with proxy servers that meet CIPA requirements but are easy to get around, minimizing their utility for managing and monitoring students' online activity.
CIPA has also posed challenges to the in-class use of students' own cell phones, laptop computers, and other Internet access devices to support learning activities when schools cannot afford to purchase devices for each student. Applying CIPA-required network filters to a variety of student-owned devices is a technical challenge that may take schools months or years to implement. However, districts such as Florida's Escambia County Schools have created technical solutions and accompanying acceptable use policies (AUPs) that comply with CIPA regulations, allowing web-based learning on student devices to run on networks supported by federal E-Rate funding.
E-Rate Overview: http://www.universalservice.org/sl/about/overview-program.aspx
FCC Order on Community Access: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-10-33A1.pdf
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