Rural Iowa schools struggle to connect online

STORM LAKE – Iowa school officials like the idea of improving Internet access across the state because it can be hard to find reliable connections online in rural areas.

Storm Lake Superintendent Carl Turner told the Sioux City Journal that his district struggles to find enough bandwidth to accommodate all the students and staff who want to get online.

Storm Lake has had to limit personal devices and the number of classes that can go online at the same time.

“A lot of people want to bring their own device,” Turner said. “With more devices, it does tend to slow us down. Our concern has always been we do not have the bandwidth to handle that many devices.”

A nonprofit group that tracks Internet access in Iowa estimates that about 680,000 Iowans don’t have broadband Internet service.

Heather Hupke, who has two kids attending Storm Lake schools, said access to the Internet is important to success in school.

“If you can’t get everyone online, it really limits what they can accomplish in school,” Hupke said. “I think kids now use the Internet more than the library.”

Lacking access to the Internet affects economic development and education, said John Stineman, executive director of the Heartland Technology Alliance.

“It’s a big issue and it’s not going to go away,” Stineman said. “The rural nature of Iowa and its small communities do present challenges, but Iowa is not alone.”

Howard-Winneshiek Community School Superintendent John Carver said improving Internet access could have a significant positive impact on education.

“I would say it’s going to be bigger than bringing electricity to rural America,” Carver said of high-speed Internet. “It’s going to be a printing-press moment for mankind.”

The Howard-Winneshiek district has given iPad tablets to its students in kindergarten through sixth grade, while those in seventh grade through the 12th have MacBook laptops. Students use the computers to complete their homework and collaborate with other students.

But Carver said that Internet access isn’t always reliable across his school district, which can make it hard to hold video conferences or download large files.

The cost of broadband Internet access is a concern, especially in Storm Lake where 74 percent of students are considered to be living in poverty. Turner said that makes it harder for low-income students to compete in school.

“Kids that have Internet access would have another advantage over kids who did not,” Turner said. “Giving one kid a textbook and not giving one to a second student would not be a good thing. Access to the Internet is the same thing.”