Arkansas to be one of three where every school is connected to high-speed internet

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 107 views 

Arkansas by July 2017 will be one of three states where every school is connected to high speed broadband internet, members of the House and Senate Education Committees were told Monday.

Mike Myers, director of the state Department of Information Systems, said all schools will be connected to fiber networks that provide speeds as high as 200 kilobits per second per student.

“We are moving to the top of the class on connectivity from that standpoint,” he said.

The state has connected 148 schools to fiber networks since it awarded bids for all but two schools by April 2015. The goal was to connect 126 schools by this time. Myers said schools have the ability to increase bandwidth to up to 1 megabit per user without having to purchase new equipment. All slow-moving copper connections are scheduled to be replaced.

Since starting the process, bandwidth access has increased from 71,549 megabits per second to 158,500 Mbps, with the average cost per megabit falling from $11.28 to $3.53.

“We’re providing a lot more connectivity as you can see from up there for a lot less money,” he said.

The total cost of the network is just under $13 million a year, Myers said. E-rate, a federal program that provides funding for schools and libraries, will pay 80% of the $6 million in transport costs. The state and E-rate will bear the entire cost of running the network, leaving schools facing no costs. Myers said some schools had contracts with vendors that ran past the end of fiscal year 2017. Those contracts have been renegotiated.

The connections are being accomplished with the help of more than 20 providers throughout the state. All schools will connect to the internet at three locations that DIS will be able to monitor. Meyers said if there is a problem, administrators will know it.

The issue of broadband connectivity gained greater importance when it became clear several years ago that some Arkansas schools lacked the ability to take advantage of online learning tools or to participate in online tests administered as part of the Common Core State Standards. For a time, some argued the schools should connect to ARE-ON, the Arkansas Research Education Optical Network, a private network used by universities and hospitals.

In other business, legislators heard from Dr. Brett Powell, director of the Department of Higher Education about “Closing the Gap 2020,” the ADHE’s plan to improve college completion rates in Arkansas. The long-term objective is to ensure that 60% of Arkansans have a post-secondary degree of some kind by 2025.

Specific goals are raising college completion rates by 10%; increasing enrollments of adult students ages 25-54 by 50% by the fall of 2018; raising the attainment rates of underserved student groups by 10%; and improving college affordability by reducing the time it takes students to earn a degrees and allocating 25% of state scholarships based on need.

To close the gap, the state is seeking to increase the number of degrees awarded by 40% from  2013-14 to 2019-20. That would include an increase of 61% in career and technical certificates awarded, an increase in associate’s degrees of 36%, and an increase in bachelor’s degrees of 28%.

Broken down by percentage of the population, Powell said the percentage of Arkansans with a bachelor’s degree, now 15.1%, needs to increase to 18% by 2020. The number of Arkansans with an associate’s degree should increase from 7.2% to 12%, and the percentage with a career and technical certificate should increase from 9% to 22%.

Powell said the 9% holding career and technical education certificates is the nation’s fourth highest but should be higher. He said a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce had found that of the 11.6 million jobs created after the recession, 11.5 million went to those with at least some college.

To help meet its goals, the ADHE is embarking on a system of outcomes-based funding that awards funding to institutions based on completion and other principles rather than simple enrollment. He said about 240,000 Arkansas adults have some college but no degree.

ADHE has awarded $16.1 million for 21 projects across the state where higher education institutions and high schools will work with employers to align their efforts.