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Telling Broadband-Access Stories with Jessica Rosenworcel

Paul Signorelli

— March 29, 2021

Stories are at the heart of the developing relationship between Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and members of the Arizona State University ShapingEDU“ Connecting for Work and Learning” initiative, which was created in May 2020 to foster support for universal broadband access throughout the United States for work and learning.

FCC Acting Chairwoman

Jessica Rosenworcel

There is the story of how the relationship initially began taking shape, when ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Lisa Gustinelli was among the educators chosen to pose questions about broadband access to Rosenworcel during a 30-minute online question-and-answer session organized as part of the June 2020 Future Ready Schools’ K-12 Technology Leaders Virtual Summit. Gustinelli, a long-time broadband-access advocate, stayed in touch with Rosenworcel and her staff after that virtual conference, making the commissioner aware of what members of the “Connecting for Work and Learning” initiative were doing to bring broadband-access proponents together to foster positive results.

Then there is the story of how those ongoing exchanges resulted in Rosenworcel agreeing to attend one of the Connecting for Work and Learning organizing committee members’ weekly meetings, on March 2, 2021, for a frank, cordial discussion about how committee members can best support FCC efforts to promote universal broadband access throughout the United States.

And, most importantly, there is the response Rosenworcel consistently provided during the time she spent in that March 2 meeting with organizing committee members and others from the ShapingEDU community:

“I think you are all on the front lines,” she told us. “You are working with educators. You have stories to tell. When I think back to what has been most effective in Washington, a lot of times it’s those stories. We want to know what you’re seeing. How many kids are sitting in a parking lot outside a fast-food restaurant? How many are lingering after hours, at school, because they don’t have the connections at home they need to do their nightly homework?...I just think we have got a lot to learn, in Washington, from those stories that you have, and sharing them with us at the FCC…and sharing them with your state, local, and federally-elected representatives is important. I believe that these kinds of stories are going to make a difference...”

Lisa Gustinelli

All of which, of course, appears to indicate that this is a match made in broadband-access heaven because ShapingEDU, among other things, is a community of storytellers. Dreamers, doers, and drivers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age—in concrete ways. It’s a community that continues to evolve in ways that emphasize action as much as dreaming. It is a community that is already well on the path to collecting numerous stories showing how lack of access to the Internet is hurting Americans in their work and lifelong learning efforts, and including stories about broadband-access champions on its broadband-access project page, on its blog, through the digital equity and social justice session and others posted on its YouTube channel, and through highly-interactive webinars  similar to the “Developing + Telling Stories of Broadband Access” session scheduled for this Wednesday (March 31, 2021) at noon EDT/9 am PDT. And it is a community committed to seeking and supporting solutions to a variety of challenges that affect our ability to function effectively in our work and learning spaces in the digital age.

Access to the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively for work and learning are clearly a long-standing interest of Rosenworcel’s: “For years, Rosenworcel has talked about the ‘homework gap,’ the term she coined to describe a problem facing communities where kids can’t access the internet because infrastructure is inadequate, their families can’t afford it, or both…” Tanya Basu noted in an interview with Rosenworcel that she published in MIT Technology Review October 12, 2020. “The more that I talked to teachers, the more I heard the same stories over and over again: Kids sitting in the school parking lot with school laptops they had borrowed late into the evening, trying to peck away at homework because that was the only place they could actually get online. Or kids sitting in fast food restaurants and doing their homework with a side of fries.

“I looked at the data and found that seven in 10 teachers would assign homework that requires internet access. But FCC data consistently shows that one in three households don’t have broadband access at home. I started calling where those numbers overlap the ‘homework gap’ because I felt that this portion of the digital divide really needed a phrase or a term to describe it because it’s so important.”

That same passion for the subject—and her belief that positive change is possible—were evident throughout the time with “Connecting for Work and Learning” members.

“I’m an optimist” she said at the beginning of the session before briefly describing recent accomplishments including congressional approval of $3.2 billion “to set up a program for low-income households to get connected.”

FCC Logo

Acknowledging the $3.2 billion program as one short-term step in the long-term effort to provide universal broadband access throughout the United States, she noted the need to work toward assuring “that every student has the connectivity they need to do their nightly schoolwork” and assuring that “teachers have all the support they need to learn how to use these tools effectively and well.”

And, in a statement that mirrors what “Connecting for Work and Learning” organizing committee members have been saying, Rosenworcel expressed strong support for the idea that having broadband access throughout the country is as important as having access to water and electricity available to everyone in our country regardless of whether they are in urban centers or geographically-isolated rural areas.

“I think your stories are really, really important, and I want to make sure they are featured prominently in our work, too,” she said as the meeting was drawing to an end. “Let’s stay in touch…You’re like a jolt of positive energy in this pandemic…If I could copy what you’re doing and make sure it’s everywhere, I think we’d be in a good place.”

Her efforts to solicit stories are continuing with the establishment, on March 22, 2021, of an FCC webpage designed to collect and share stories highlighting the need for access to the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively.

N.B. – For more information about the Connecting for Work and Learning initiative or to become involved, please visit the project page on the ShapingEDU website or contact organizing committee members.

Paul Signorelli

Paul Signorelli, one of several contributors to the Reshaping Learning blog, served as one of three ShapingEDU Storytellers in Residence from July 2020-June 2021. He also blogs at Building Creative Bridges and can be reached at paul@paulsignorelli.com.