Sunday, March 03, 2013

Robust fiber to the premise telecom infrastructure can help stem falling rural school enrollment

The Sacramento Bee reports today on rapidly falling enrollment in rural school districts in the Sacramento, California metro region.  I personally think we need help," Fred Adam, superintendent of Placer Hills Union and an executive committee member with the state’s Small School Districts' Association, told newspaper, adding, "I truly worry about the future.”

Behind the drop in enrollment, according to the Bee article, are an aging population and a declining birth rate. In rural areas, the article continues, these trends are magnified by a small employment base that has been further eroded by years of recession. With few jobs and fewer options, many families have moved to the suburbs or out of state to find work. "It's a pretty consistent story throughout California in rural communities," Adam is quoted as saying. "You can't compete with time and distance."

Yes we can.  It can be bridged by robust, Internet-based telecommunications services that can enable rural school districts to rely less on classrooms and the need to bus students to and from them, thereby reducing operating expenses.

How?  By facilitating what educators are calling blended learning.  Jeremy Meyers, deputy superintendent of the El Dorado County Office of Education (quoted in the Sacramento Bee story), recently wrote about the emerging educational method in which pupils do much of their learning and class projects outside of the classroom via the Internet – arguably the world’s biggest and best stocked library.  Back in the classroom, their teachers review their projects, answer questions and lead discussions. Authors William A. Draves and Julie Coates describe Web-based education as one of the nine defining trends of the 21st century in the 2004 book Nine Shift: Work, Life, and Education in the 21st Century.
Just as workshifting allows their parents to work part of the work week at the office, might someday soon students report to class on fewer days that the Industrial Age Monday through Friday schedule of the 20th Century?  This is not to say the classroom is facing obsolescence, particularly for primary students where the classroom plays an important role in the development of social skills.  But for older kids who grew up in the connected world, blended learning makes lots of sense.

Key to making this possible is fiber to the premise telecommunications infrastructure that has the capacity to deliver information in all forms as well as enable video conferencing between students, parents and educators.  In order for that critical infrastructure to be put in place, communities must come together and find ways to finance its planning, construction and operation since the business models of existing telephone and cable companies cannot accommodate the telecommunications needs of less populous areas. 
A virtuous bonus of more robust telecommunications infrastructure is it would also better enable parents of school age children to work remotely and run home-based businesses.  That in turn would help keep them and their kids in the community and curb declining school enrollment.

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