28 May 2019

Broken Link

Evan Marwell’s fight to bring American schools up to speed
by Nicole Torres


Illustration by Chris Gash

In 2011, Evan Marwell (MBA 1992) was serving on the board of his daughter’s school in San Francisco when he discovered something surprising: The school’s Wi-Fi was terrible. He was asking the teachers about trying the online learning tools offered by Khan Academy, and was told that the school’s internet wasn’t fast enough to support streaming video: Its Wi-Fi network was eight years old, and with only a single cable modem for 500 people, it didn’t reach every classroom. Trying to connect, as one teacher described it, was like “sucking peanut butter through a straw.”

If the internet was this poor at a private K–8 school in the heart of Silicon Valley, Marwell wondered, what was it like at other schools across the United States?

Not much better, he soon found out. One Federal Communications Commission survey released at the time reported that nearly 80 percent of schools and libraries didn’t have a broadband connection that met their needs. Although nearly all public K–12 schools in the United States were connected to the internet by 2006, most had slow dial-up or DSL connections that students couldn’t always access. “The only place you could use the internet was in the computer lab,” Marwell says, “and it was really hard for teachers to integrate technology into their curriculums.”

While the American economy was being transformed by 21st-century high-speed internet, Wi-Fi, and a profusion of new digital technologies, schools were still trying to get online like it was 1996. This was worrisome to Marwell—a serial entrepreneur and recipient of the San Francisco Chronicle Visionary of the Year award—as technology was becoming increasingly essential for success at school and in the workforce. “Broadband connectivity means students can connect to innovative tools that help them explore, learn, and create. And teachers can better identify when a student might need a little extra help,” says Sara Kloek, director of education policy at the Software & Information Industry Association.

To meet this challenge, in 2012 Marwell founded EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing high-speed broadband into all of the country’s public schools. With upgraded internet access, students would be better equipped to take advantage of digital learning. Since then, EducationSuperHighway’s team has played a key role in catalyzing action on the federal, state, and school district levels to address these issues.

The team’s first task was to determine the scope of the problem. They built a test to measure a school’s broadband speed, then partnered with state departments of education to convince schools to use it. The team found that in 2013, less than 10 percent of US public school students—about 4 million kids—had sufficient broadband to use technology in the classroom. “It was a widespread problem that wasn’t really limited to one demographic,” Marwell says. “Even when you looked at things like the poverty level of the school and rural versus urban and suburban, that didn’t really predict anything.” (Rural schools did have slower speeds, but they also had fewer students to slow the network down.)

After securing nearly $30 million in funding, the group’s work unfolded over three phases. Phase one was about creating awareness. Armed with data about the schools’ actual broadband speeds, Marwell was able to illustrate the urgency of the matter to the White House. “By using data to prove that there was a problem, we were able to convince the president to make solving it a national priority,” Marwell says. In June 2013, President Obama launched the ConnectED initiative to bring high-speed broadband to 99 percent of public schools across America within five years.

Next they lobbied the FCC to modernize its long-standing federal E-rate program, which had been providing $2.4 billion for schools and libraries to get internet access—but, incredibly, the program hadn’t been updated to support the shift from dial-up to broadband. By the end of 2014, the FCC expanded the funding for broadband to nearly $4 billion a year.

The team found that in 2013, less than 10 percent of US public school students—about 4 million kids—had sufficient broadband to use technology in the classroom.

The team found that in 2013, less than 10 percent of US public school students—about 4 million kids—had sufficient broadband to use technology in the classroom.

The third phase—working with states and school districts on the actual network upgrades—has been ongoing since 2015. One key strategy has been to advocate at the state level to increase funding for broadband and to partner with state governors (49 so far) for the distribution channels and credibility they needed to get into school districts.

According to the organization’s 2018 report, 98 percent of US public schools are now connected to high-speed broadband, and 44.7 million students, in more than 81,000 schools, have the internet access they need for digital learning. “The broadband problem is almost solved,” Marwell says.

Robin Bolt has seen the difference a better connection makes. She’s the executive director of administrative services at the Rappahannock County Public Schools, a rural school district in Virginia that was used to slow internet and frequent outages that interrupted everything from lesson plans to standardized tests. Last year, EducationSuperHighway helped the district install fiber-optic cable. Because of the faster and more reliable service, the district can now provide “one-to-one” computing—meaning each student has a device in the classroom. “Everything is online and in apps. We’re moving our kids to the 21st century,” Bolt says.

Marwell is planning to sunset EducationSuper-Highway at the end of August 2020 and says he’s confident they’ll reach their goal of connecting 99 percent of schools before then. That doesn’t mean he’s underestimating the challenge in the year ahead. “The last 1 or 2 percent is the hardest,” he says.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1992, Section E
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