Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Guide to Federal Broadband Funding Opportunities in the US available


In a recent blog post, we outlined the argument in favor of universal broadband.  Since that post, the Internet Society has published a Guide to Federal Broadband Funding Opportunities in the US.  The guide identifies various funding opportunities available for all levels of government local, state, tribal) and utilities to expand broadband infrastructure.  The funding opportunities include those that are currently available and ones that may be available in the future.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Gamification: Making Learning Fun and Intuitive


The first time I taught English as a Second Language (ESL), one of my fellow instructors was writing a dissertation on gamification.  My immediate reaction to turning learning for adults into a game was not so positive (learning should be serious, right?!).  But as I listened to her theories and watched her students learn faster than mine did, I became intrigued.


What is gamification?  Wikipedia defines it as “the introduction of game elements in a non-game situation.”  In other words, instructors turn exercises into games to encourage participation and essentially hide the learning aspect of the exercise.


Why does it work?  It’s fun!  People get more relaxed focusing on the game part of the exercise, creating mental space for the learning to occur.  For some students, it feeds their sense of competition, which enhances motivation for learning.  Most importantly, it works with (rather than against) the neuroscience of the brain.  “What fires together, wires together.”  Repetition strengthens the neural connections in the brain, and gamification provides a non-boring way to practice repetition.  Finally, the game can generate a lot of laughter, which has additional neuroscience benefits for learning.


What does gamification look like?  Here’s the game I designed for that ESL class:  practicing tenses for the verb “to be” using dice.  The set-up for the game:

·      Two dice

·      Two columns on the board:  one column lists six pronouns (I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they); the other column lists tenses (past, present, future, past, present, future)

Going in turns, each student rolls both dice.  The number of each die facing up tells the student what they need to say (die 1 = 3, die 2 = 4:  “he was”).  The beauty of the game is its unpredictability, and the students can go at whatever pace they’re comfortable with.  Depending on the competitiveness of the students, you can choose to keep score (or not).


OK, so I was sold on gamification.  In the classroom.  But does it work for online learning?


Popular Science magazine recently reviewed a variety of gamified learning apps that incorporate principles of online games to serious topics.  The major benefit appears to be the dopamine hit the student gets from playing the learning game, which encourages continued use (and, therefore, continued learning).  I encourage you to go read the Popular Science article in full, but here is a sample of the apps they reviewed:


·      Duolingo is a prime example of gamification.  The app applauds you for every correct answer (feel that “ping” of pleasure in your brain?!), and gently (but persistently) nudges you to take the next step if you start slacking off on the lessons.  The app’s humorous nudges have created an entire meme library (e.g., It’s simple. Spanish or vanish.)

·      eQuoo seeks to teach emotional intelligence (EQ) through choose-your-own-adventure games.

·      World Citizen teaches world geography through quizzes and competition with others.

·      Yousician, which has been compared to the video game Guitar Hero, helps you learn to play an instrument (guitar, piano, ukulele) by simulating a real performance scenario.


Suggestions for incorporating gamification into your curriculum can be found here, here, and here.


May the best player/learner win!

Monday, March 15, 2021

US Congress Considering Funding for Universal Broadband


Our last blog post outlined the argument for universal broadband (equitable access to the internet for all), and suggested a few ways this could be accomplished.


Since that blog post, Congress passed the coronavirus stimulus package, which included $7 billion to help K-12 schools provide their students with devices (computers, tablets, wifi hotspots) they need to participate in remote learning.  The stimulus package also provides $10 billion for states to use to expand infrastructure, which can (but does not have to) include broadband internet access.


Since the covid stimulus package passed, legislation has been introduced in the US Congress to provide $94 billion to make broadband internet access available and affordable across the country.  Called the Accessible, Affordable Internet Access for All Act, the proposed legislation envisions a new federal program that focuses exclusively on ensuring equitable internet access across the 50 states.  The infrastructure development focus will be on projects in areas that currently have no internet:  rural and tribal areas, as well as lower-income urban communities.


The bill also proposes to provide $6 billion in an affordability program, which would provide up to $50/month subsidies for families in need to access existing internet services.


The Accessible, Affordable Internet Access for All Act was introduced by 30 Democrats in both the House and Senate.  A summary of the bill’s main points is available here.  Given the current make-up of both houses of Congress, this is the best opportunity in a long time for the bill to pass.  If you are a reader in the US, your representative and senator would love to hear from you …

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Universal Broadband: A Worthy Aspiration Whose Time Has Come


Several of our blog posts over the past year have highlighted the digital divide in the US (and around the world), and the Covid pandemic has prompted some creative solutions.  (Read here, here, here and here)  Watching a NPR Nightly News segment on the issue two days ago got me to thinking … why don’t we treat internet access like electricity?  A necessary utility, made available to all at a reasonable cost?


In the 1930’s, the US was in a similar situation about electricity.  Most rural areas didn’t have it, and their economies and populations suffered greatly as a result.  President Theodore Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935, which brought electricity to virtually all remote areas of the continental US by 1960. 


The REA’s electricity distribution network then leveraged the expansion of telephone lines across the country. 


Universal broadband (the phrase generally used to describe internet-for-all) is not a new idea.  It’s been debated for decades.  Universal broadband legislation was introduced in the last session of Congress.  The Covid pandemic and associated online learning challenges across the nation may provide the catalyst and political tipping point for finally bringing universal broadband to reality. 


An estimated 18 million Americans, mostly living in rural areas, have no access to the internet (although there is not consensus on that number, and it may as much as twice as high).  And even among urban Americans, where internet access is available, many low income residents can’t afford it (and therefore can’t actually access the internet).   Meaning, there are two basic issues that need to be dealt with:  (1) providing the infrastructure for universal high speed broadband access, and (2) regulating the monthly rates to ensure universal and equitable access.


Many proposals are floating out there to cover the cost of building the additional needed infrastructure, mostly in rural areas:

·      Our phone bills purport to include a fee to support universal broadband (although fewer and fewer phone calls are being made, which reduces the income from this fee).

·      Federal and state funding (loans and outright grants) will likely provide the bulk of the initial construction/ development costs.  The FCC and other federal agencies already provide such funding, but not in the necessary amounts to cover the entire country.  States like mine also include line items for rural broadband access in their annual budgets, but these are likewise not at fully adequate levels.


Our federal agencies will need to develop a plan that envisions the complete infrastructure necessary, and funding will need to be found from multiple sources (Congress, state and local governments, charitable foundations) to ensure that the infrastructure is put in place.


There are also multiple ways to address the affordability of internet access, once the infrastructure is in place.  Internet providers could be required to provide low-cost options as a condition of their license to operate (with the proviso that the speed and quality access provided by low-cost options is adequate to fully access online learning).   Internet service could become a regulated utility, where the providing company is guaranteed a minimum level of profit in exchange for providing full access to all potential users.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just this week approved an emergency subsidy for low-income families to get internet service.  This will provide much-needed, but short-term, assistance.


We do not lack for ideas about how to make universal broadband happen.  And the historic expansion of electricity and telephone into virtually all areas of the US provide examples of success.  What we need now are ideological courage, political will, adequate funding, and speedy implementation.


Friday, February 12, 2021

Lessons Learned (So Far) from Covid-related Online Education


Our June 2020 blog post outlined some of the challenges remaining to meet the Straube Foundation’s mission of showing how anyone anywhere can obtain quality education at little or no cost.


Now, almost one year into pandemic lockdowns and extensive reliance on online learning, various institutions are surveying students and faculty to find out what worked and what could be improved.  My parent institution, the University of Utah, recently released their online learning survey results.


The survey results reflect that students experienced these top challenges:

·      Personal motivation.

·      Lack of clarity about course requirements / learning expectations.

·      Disrupted sleep and activity sequences. (NOTE: this could also have been due to Covid lockdowns, rather than online learning.)

·      Time to dedicate to online classes.


Several faculty behaviors were identified as particularly helpful to student success:

·      Being flexible and accommodating.

·      Giving clear instructions for assignments.

·      Providing more student-centered support than usual (e.g., regular announcements and reminders via email and course webpage).

·      Being accessible and available for questions.


In response to the survey results, the university is devoting additional resources to two things: 

(1) training faculty in effective online teaching methodology, and

(2) providing more technology to help students and faculty access online learning (classroom technology, wifi hotspots, laptop and wifi loans).


In future blog posts, we will continue to explore creative methods for meeting the challenges to universal online learning.  The results of student and faculty surveys such as the one summarized here can provide useful direction as well, especially for course developers and instructors.


Thursday, January 28, 2021

More Coronavirus, More Edutainment Resources


Early on in the pandemic, I shared a variety of resources for keeping your mind engaged while quarantined at home:  March 22 (no need to be bored), March 30 (virtual travel), April 6 (for kids of all ages), April 13 (exercise at home), April 20 (virtual mindfulness).


Here we are, almost a year later (yikes!), and vaccination-for-all is starting to be visible ahead at the end of the tunnel.  As a community, however, we are still not past the need for physical distancing and continued isolation.  And, in the intervening months since my first posts, even more edutainment material has been made available.  Indeed, edutainment may become the post-pandemic norm.


Here is a list of additional ways to learn and be entertained while watching a screen (some are free, some not):


·      Arts and culture

o   Opera Philadelphia streaming

o   Metropolitan Opera on demand

o   British National Theatre live performances

o   London Royal Opera House streaming

o   Georgia O’Keeffe online museum

o   Globe Theatre Shakespeare productions


·      Nature and wildlife

o   Aquarium livestreams

o   African wildlife livecams

o   Discover Wildlife livestreams

o   US national park livecams

o   San Diego zoo livecam


·      Fitness

o   How Covid-19 has permanently changed the fitness industry

o   15 of the best free workout apps

o   Yoga for beginners

o   7 Minute Workout

o   Yoga with Adriene


·      Mindfulness

o   eMindful (link is specific to our readers)

o   Music and mindfulness

o   Stop, Breathe & Think

o   10% Happier

o   UCLA Mindful


·      Brain training games

o   BrainHQ

o   Lumosity

Friday, January 15, 2021

MindUP: Mental and Emotional Wellness Training for Ages 3-14 Goes Virtual


A month or so ago, I listened to a podcast of actor Alan Alda interviewing Goldie Hawn about her non-profit MindUP.  I was quite intrigued.


The organization provides training materials to help children ages 3-14 develop social and emotional learning, to give them a strong foundation to weather the challenges that life will throw at them.  The skills included in the MindUP program have been proven to increase resilience and decrease negative behaviors.


The MindUP training program is based on scientific research in the fields of neuroscience, positive psychology, mindful awareness, and social-emotional learning.  It covers topics including:

·      The Brain & The Brain Break

·      Mindful Awareness

·      Acts of Kindness & Optimism

·      Perspective Taking, Kindness, Gratitude

The training includes coaching services as well, so teachers and parents can themselves become proficient in the skills.


Just like the brain breaks I wrote about in my last blog post, and the mindfulness practices available for our readers at eM-Life, the MindUP training program helps children learn how to learn.  The children acquire skills they can use for the rest of their lives, regardless of which educational or career path they choose.


Just a few days ago, I discovered that the MindUP training materials are now available virtually.  Meaning that any teacher or parent, anywhere in the world, can take advantage of the science-based curriculum and coaching support.  Many of the lessons are available for free on the MindUp website, and memberships to the online learning platform are free in “early 2021” only.