GUEST COLUMN | by Brian Stephens

Do you remember bulletin board systems? If you don’t, that’s okay – it’s a pretty computer-geekish thing to remember. BBSes were ad-hoc computer networks – primitive by today’s standards – that existed in the space of time before we all started getting dial-up connections to the Internet. Basically, Geek 1 would set up his computer with special server-type software, turn on his modem (or maybe two or three if it was a really fancy BBS), and wait for someone to call. Geek 2 would use his modem to dial Geek 1’s number and establish the connection, and voila – the two could communicate. In a lot of ways, BBSes functioned like a rudimentary version of the Internet we enjoy (or tolerate) today. Users could leave electronic messages for one another, engage in real-time chats, play very basic games against one another (ASCII!), and even share files with one another (even though it could take hours to transfer even the smallest of files.)

BBSes became very popular among computer hobbyists, enough so that many cities had local publications which served as BBS directories with names and dial-in numbers (ours was called The Monitor.) Before long, word spread that there was a new game in town, and independently operated BBSes began slowly disappearing into the rapidly growing public Internet.

But let’s face it – you don’t have to be a major computer geek to see the progression of technology. The iPod Touch that your son or daughter uses to listen to music on the way home from school has at least ten times more processing power, memory, storage, and graphics capabilities than the giant, heavy, 486 PCs we used to use to call BBSes. And advances in telecommunications and broadband technologies provide those data-hungry devices with access to the world in seconds. To wit: here’s a comparison of what Yahoo’s homepage looked like in 1994 versus 2012:

There is no question that the rapid advancement of technology has permeated every aspect of our lives. The 2012 workplace is now expected to have advanced communications systems readily available, and most, if not all, of the workforce is expected to have a certain degree of digital literacy. Because of this, it is crucial that today’s K-12 schools prepare students for working in a digital society. And in order to do so, schools and school districts must themselves be 21st century workplaces for educators, administrators, and support staff.

Fortunately, schools across the country are rising to the task. Technologies like high-definition educational video on-demand, virtual field trips via videoconferencing, cloud-based learning tools, curriculum, and content, and student engagement through Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and social learning platforms have transformed the way educators work – and students learn.

The integration of these technologies into the classroom is constantly evolving through continued successes and failures, but one thing is clear:  in order for virtually any technological learning initiative to be successful, schools must have a robust and reliable communications infrastructure supporting educators behind the scenes.

Enter the federal E-rate program. Established in 1997, the program is designed to provide K-12 schools and public libraries with substantial discounts on the purchase of advanced telecommunications, wide area network, and broadband Internet services, as well as supporting network infrastructure hardware. Funded with just over $2.3 billion per year from the Universal Service Fund, the E-rate program has approved over $32.3 billion in funding requests for infrastructure services since the July 1, 2008.  The savings realized on critical infrastructure purchases has enabled schools to reinvest in other classroom and educational technologies.

As successful as the program has been, it is clear that there is still more work to do.  For Funding Year 2012, total demand for E-rate funds reached a ten-year high at $5.237 billion, almost twice the annual funding cap. Moreover, demand for E-rate eligible products and services has risen over 20 percent in the last year alone.  In order for the program to continue to provide the infrastructure support schools require, a change must be made.

In November 2011, Funds For Learning CEO John Harrington penned an open letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, urging the Commission to consider increasing the amount of funding available annually through the E-rate program in a way that does not increase taxes or create additional strain on the federal budget. In addition, signatures are being collected from those who wish to show support for the continued success of the program. The response has been overwhelming – educators, technologists, parents, and community members have all pitched in to emphasize the importance of 21st century communications in our K-12 schools.

Today’s students are presented with an array of technologies seemingly unfathomable by those of us who got our start by poring over ANSI text that came from a BBS somewhere across town. In order to support them, we must continue to ensure that our schools and libraries are provided with the essential infrastructure and backbones required for reliable operation of emerging educational and collaborative technologies.


Brian Stephens is Funds For Learning’s Senior Systems Analyst. Brian works directly with FFL’s service provider clients, providing detailed analysis and guidance in the areas of product and service eligibility, service substitutions, cost-allocation methodologies, and regulatory compliance issues. He also conducts E-rate workshops and training seminars across the country. In addition to providing service provider compliance services, Brian works with FFL’s Information Services department providing local area network, IP telephony, and Linux server administration and support services. Brian joined the Funds For Learning team in 2003 and holds a degree in Management Information Systems from the University of Oklahoma.