A pervasive digital divide hinders academic success for many of the nation’s K-12 students, including in Indiana. According to a 2020 Ball State University study, about 6.5 percent of households in Indiana with school-aged children lack internet access—leaving about 80,000 students in the state unable to utilize online learning resources from home. COVID-19 school closures exposed the impact of this long-established digital divide, also known as a “homework gap,” as these students, many of whom already faced obstacles to academic success, were further disadvantaged when much instruction was provided remotely.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations (IPBS) has worked diligently to support schools and students through datacasting, which leverages older, widely available technologies to expand access to internet-based content. Datacasting essentially mimics the internet experience. But instead of transmitting via broadband or Wi-Fi, it uses television broadcast spectrum to carry data to computers over airwaves and an antenna and receiver setup. Through this process, datacasting converts a portion of the television broadcast signal to a one-way transmission of encrypted IP data. Students connected to datacasting platforms receive instructional units from educational television libraries that go directly to their Wi-Fi enabled device, such as a laptop, tablet, or cellphone.

In fall 2020, the state of Indiana became one of just three states to try out datacasting on a larger scale. Indiana awarded $6 million in grants to IPBS to allow member stations to begin a pilot program of providing datacasting to 8,200 households in the state. IPBS is partnering in this effort with SpectraRep, which provides EduCast equipment and services directly to schools and families that allows for datacasting. EduCast interfaces with the learning management system (LMS) school districts already use, so no extra content creation, digitally or in printed take-home packets, or LMS adoption is required on the part of teachers. While the experience for students simulates internet use, students have access only to teacher-curated content—a built-in safety feature for parents concerned about their children’s exposure to the web.

In addition to boosting the reach of e-learning, datacasting could save Indiana millions of dollars in education funding. That is because, unlike installing public Wi-Fi access areas or purchasing hotspots and devices to issue to students, datacasting makes use of existing infrastructures that TV stations have relied on for decades. Datacasting has also long been used to support public safety and in public emergency incidents. Its application within education is new—and potentially revolutionary, especially in rural and urban regions where the broadband gaps are greatest.

“One in four students in Indiana don’t have access to viable broadband internet for educational purposes,” said Mark Newman, Executive Director of IPBS. “Datacasting helps to solve this problem by shrinking the digital divide and empowering students. Wherever students are able to receive an over-the-air television signal, they are now also able to access targeted classroom content from their teachers. We’re not talking about accessing it on your television set. Rather, we’re talking about access on your computer device. It really is leveling the playing field.”

Through partnership with IPBS, Indiana school districts are able to datacast a variety of instructional materials to students, including recorded lectures, live lectures, problem sets, reading units, lesson plans, quizzes, tests, and a host of classroom assignments. Essentially any type of file can be transmitted via datacasting. Teachers can self-create items, but the balance of instructional content datacasted will be acquired from other sources. Currently datacasting is one-way. Research is ongoing to develop integrated return paths that allow students to send completed schoolwork back to their teachers.

Through partnership with WTIU, Bloomington’s public broadcasting station, Jennings County School Corporation in southeastern Indiana is the first site in which datacasting has been deployed district-wide. Several key readiness factors, such as availability of educational content, technology, and funding, will determine where to next activate datacasting. School districts that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic will also be a key consideration for datacasting. Interested local educational agencies within Indiana should reach out to IPBS at info@IPBS.org.

The facilitation of datacasting is an extension of IPBS’s mission to provide quality educational content and resources to young Hoosiers—in their classrooms and homes, over the air and free of charge—to help them prepare for success in school and life. IPBS is also committed to helping teachers and parents support Indiana’s children. I-Light, Indiana’s research and education fiber optic network, proudly aids IPBS in its mission by providing network connectivity for its stations, directly or through its higher education member institutions.