New Mexico PBS to broadcast educational materials to 100 students’ computers

Datacasting transmits lessons and schoolwork to rural homes in a state ranked nearly last for broadband access

By: - October 21, 2021 6:15 am

The main tower for New Mexico PBS on Sandia Peak. It feeds around 35-40 translators around the state that will repeat this signal carrying datacasting out to New Mexico’s most rural communities and homes. KENW in Portales and KRWG in Las Cruces are also part of the project, so the datacasting service is truly all of New Mexico and then some. (Photo courtesy of New Mexico PBS)

Five New Mexico school districts will take part in a pilot program testing a technology that transmits school work to students’ homes via their television.

Transmitters the size of a playing card deck will be sent to 100 families in the districts chosen to test the program. The transmitters will pick up education materials and then transfer it to student’s chromebooks or other digital devices in a process called datacasting.

“It’s like having a school library in every home with one of these receivers,” said Kurt Steinhaus, public education secretary-designate. “Basically, students will be able to call up classroom lessons or other educational materials much as they would tune in to watch ‘Sesame Street’ or other PBS shows on TV.”

These broadcast signals reach 98% of New Mexico homes. In contrast, only about 80% of the state is connected to high-speed broadband, ranking N.M. second-to-last in terms of connectivity, according to Broadband Now, which accesses and translates data from public and private entities.

“We believe this could be an important piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is universal digital access,” Steinhaus said.

The datacasting signals sharing student class resources are controlled by the New Mexico Public Broadcasting System. The state’s PBS outlet will transmit to Bernalillo, Cuba, Pojoaque, Silver City and Taos — the five school districts invited to participate in the pilot program.

Each district was targeted for their student demographics and available internet access for families in their communities. These districts are also considered focus districts in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit.

For instance, a motion was approved by the judge in the case siding with the plaintiffs that New Mexico must also provide adequate technology — such as devices and access to the internet — for students to successfully participate in remote learning.

Cuba Independent School District was invited to participate in the datacasting pilot program. In the technology motion, it argues the majority faculty and staff do not have reliable broadband internet. The district reports that 85% of students did not have reliable broadband, and more than half of its 2020 senior class rode out the pandemic remote learning without any internet at home.

New Mexico PBS general manager Franz Joachim is excited to collaborate with schools to provide the service for students.

“Leveraging opportunities created by digital broadcasting, we can devote a small part of our channel space to send internet content directly to students who lack sufficient internet connectivity,” Joachim said.

During remote learning, PBS aired shows hosted by New Mexico teachers that provided an in-class instruction experience.

The new program will share the same homework and lesson plans students would receive in their classroom environment.

“Without affecting our television broadcasts in any way, we will create a pathway from teacher to student — bridging the digital divide and delivering content designed for internet distribution to homes that lack internet capabilities,” he said.

New Mexico PBS finished installing and testing the first transmitter in early October.

The project will use lessons hosted on digital systems teachers are already using, such as Canvas or Google Classrooms. Education materials will be taken from these systems for transmission to the airwaves.

“We are proud to provide part of the solution to one of New Mexico’s most pressing problems,” Joachim said.

Students can use wifi-hotspots provided by their school district to submit their completed work. This process was put together to also alleviate teacher workload, PED consultant Ferdi Serim said.

“This doesn’t require the teachers to do anything. The only thing teachers are going to notice is that their students have more access than before, and their literacy is improving,” he said.

PED anticipates the project to be in student homes by the end of October.

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.

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