New Money for Distance Learning Offers Options for Schools

There is more momentum behind the growth of distance learning as an answer to the Covid-19 pandemic, with an assortment of federal agencies agreeing to work together ahead of a new round of grants to increase high-speed Internet access in rural areas.

Awards connected to the spring CARES Act stimulus bill are expected to be announced soon, with allocations for distance learning purchases by school systems and higher education institutions among the pieces of funding that is part of the USDA’s Distant Learning and Telemedicine Program. The Rural Utilities Service is administering the program, which is intended to make distance learning and telehealth infrastructure more widely available to provide those services to the estimated 15 percent of the U.S. population that may have limited learning and health care options because of the pandemic.

A recently signed memorandum of understanding between the USDA, the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services is intended to make it as easy as possible for the three agencies to disperse and execute grants, some of which have already been awarded to communities looking to increase their broadband capabilities.

The ongoing prevalence of the Covid-19 virus throughout the U.S. has made it difficult for school systems to confidently bring students back on campuses. While remote learning serves as something of a substitute for in-person teaching, those options can be limited in small communities without the market demand to attract broadband wiring from telecomm companies.

The USDA opened up applications for the grants over the summer, and expanded the eligibility criteria so larger communities could have the option to make improvements that would benefit those needing modern solutions for health care and education via high-speed Internet.

With programs like the USDA’s Rural Utility Services and Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants doubling their award caps to $1 million per recipient, as well as making the awards more available to communities of up to 50,000 population, there are lots of options for school systems planning to improve their distance learning offerings. Leaders of those school systems who spent the summer months strategizing how to improve their distance learning offerings will soon have more resources available to execute those plans.

Kjierstin Layton, Vyopta’s Public Sector Sales US, advises Education Administrations on how to use rich data on class engagement, attendance and quality of service, and said systems that were assembled in a hurry through the spring using free trial offers from providers have been analyzed to determine their effectiveness and how their cost structure fits with budgets for sustainability and effectiveness now and in the future.

“There can be problems with not knowing how to optimize your resources, performance and the trending of who’s using what. User adoption is a key factor of success and sustainability. If you grow or bring on new services administrations must be able to measure the success of these platforms. When we open up broad approval and lots of funding starts happening it’s always a good thing but we should approach the process of implementing new technology in a hurry with a way to measure its effectiveness” she said.

“Where this becomes really relevant is Vyopta has the ability to give a current roadmap of what you have today and how that’s being utilized, and then allow you to have a very clear picture and design to say, OK we’ve got X dollars and need to buy more of this because it shows from our reporting that we are max license capacity for this manufacturer and that’s what everyone is using and it seems to be working, or we are in the middle of a transition and looking at migrating technology from one platform to another. It’s important to be able to measure the total cost of ownership in either scenario.”


Get Valuable Data, Quickly

There can be unpleasant surprises waiting for education systems that set up their distance learning resources in a hurry without checking into details about usage and how students connect into class sessions. One example Layton shares is that students who join classes via audio on a cellular network instead of the dedicated IP channel – because they have poor or no Internet access at home – could wind up paying per minute for that telco access.The key to making smart purchases with the new money available is knowing how the distance learning network is being used, and strengthening resources accordingly.

“If they have received money from CARES or other relief packages or are potentially seeking funds from a grant like RUS; they must make sure districts have a sustainable environment for collaboration with an optimal user experience for both students and instructors. They must also be able to prove it works, auditing will come and they will need the data to back what those dollars paid for.” she said.

“Decision makers must ask, what do we have and is that working? They need to go back to their instructors and teachers and find out how the distance learning application is working, find out from their own what the adoption and comfort level is. Ask their IT administration where the trouble spots are, open tickets, user requests, etc. Vyopta’s data and analytics platform can help them move forward and provide data that can be used to determine what manufacturer/s has been easiest for a users environment as it stands today and sustain should a new normal come fall.”

As part of its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Vyopta is currently offering a free trial to help IT teams support massive expansion in distance learning

Chad Swiatecki

Chad Swiatecki is a business writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Billboard, New York Daily News, Austin Business Journal, Austin American-Statesman and many other print and online publications. He lives in Austin, Texas and is a graduate of Michigan State University. Find him online on LinkedIn.