GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Jennifer Southers has flipped education upside-down for her math students at Hillcrest High School.
Instead of coming to class and listening to a lecture, then going home and trying out what they learned on their own, they listen to a lecture on video before class and work on putting the new knowledge to practice in the classroom, where their teacher is there to help.
"The level of frustration has almost disappeared completely on those lessons when we do that," she said of the "flipped classroom" concept that she and other teachers are using.
It's one of many new ways education is being delivered online these days.
Teachers use a big-screen web portal instead of a blackboard to illustrate their points. Students undertake multimedia digital projects in place of pen-and-paper book reports
But what about students who don't have broadband Internet access at home? How can they keep up with their peers in streaming instructional videos and doing online research?
More than two-thirds of low-income families in South Carolina don't have a high-speed Internet connection, said Jessica Ditto, spokeswoman for Connected Nation, a nonprofit organization that works to increase broadband access in the nation. Overall, 57 percent of households in the state have broadband access, she said.
Students at Hillcrest can get high-speed Internet access in the school's computer labs before and after school and during lunch, Southers said. Some go to the public libraries after school hours, or if they have a computer, to Wi-Fi hotspots in places like McDonald's.
Southers believes not having Internet at home can have its good side. It makes students more organized, because they know they need to get their work done while they're online, rather than playing around.
She believes it's up to teachers to keep a home technology deficit from being a disadvantage for students.
Jeff McCoy, the Greenville County School District's director of instructional technology, says most schools are not assigning web-based homework because of the digital divide. But he says there's no way around a lack of a home broadband connection being a disadvantage among the have-nots.
"Students who have access to technology at home know how to access that technology to explore their natural curiosity," he said. "Students who do not have access to this technology at home, while they may have the curiosity, do not have the means to access it."
He says there's not much the district can do to make opportunities more equal.
South Carolina was moving four years ago toward developing a system that could put an Internet cloud over the state, using the SC-ETV towers that bring in educational programs to schools.
A changeover from analog to digital technology freed up a big chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum that could have supported such a system, called Wi-MAX.
Four years later, nothing has happened.
Amid complaints from telecommunications industry groups that opposed the idea of "government entry into the broadband business," the special commission set up by the Legislature -- the South Carolina Educational Broadband Service Commission -- went in a different direction.
The decision was made to lease the frequencies to Clearwire, a national Internet service provider, for $142.7 million over 30 years, according to SC-ETV documents.
Clearwire is not using the spectrum and hasn't started offering service in South Carolina anywhere except at a few ETV sites, said company spokesman Christopher Comes.
Clearwire, which is in the process of merging with Sprint, operates in 80 markets across the country, but South Carolina hasn't fit into its business plans yet, he said.
"Never at any time did we agree to build out the entire state, or a specific timeline, with a Wi-MAX network," Comes told GreenvilleOnline.com.
Linda O'Bryon, president of SC-ETV, was not in that position at the time the spectrum lease was negotiated, but she said, "None of the vendors who were in contention would agree to a build-out schedule."
The South Carolina Educational Broadband Service Commission, which consisted of a panel of experts, chose the best bids available at the time, which were agreed to by the SC-ETV Commission, she said.
"The hope is that that would happen," she said of the concept of a statewide broadband network evolving from that spectrum. "We would like to see that happen."
Another program that offers the possibility of home broadband availability for low-income students is in the evaluation phase.
The Federal Communications Commission ran a pilot in 2011 to determine the feasibility of expanding its E-Rate program, which offers discounts to public schools and libraries for broadband access using money generated by the Universal Service Fund. That's a charge of about $3 that's tacked onto phone bills.
The pilot, called the E-Rate Deployed Ubiquitously 2011 Pilot Program, tested the concept of subsidizing mobile Internet access for students who qualified for free and reduced-price school lunch, according to an FCC document outlining the results in 14 school districts.
The schools reported that the program reduced the dropout rate, increased student achievement, raised students' interest in college and math-related careers, improved communication with second-language English speakers, and increased "student ownership of learning."
No South Carolina school districts participated in the pilot.
Charter Communications, which serves Upstate South Carolina with high-speed Internet service, has participated in a similar program in California called Connect2Compete, as well as other low-income trial programs in other markets, said company spokesman John Miller.
"More than just access to a reduced monthly Internet service, these programs involve many entities all coming together to provide different components of the program, such as affordable computers and digital literacy training support," he said. "These components are necessities in order for a program to be successful."
The company is now evaluating results of these pilot programs.
Bill Brown, executive director of educational technology services for Greenville County Schools, says 4G LTE technology offers the most promise for bridging the digital divide.
With it, "You could blanket buildings, you could blanket cities" with high-speed Internet access, he said.
"They're all running 4G networks in town," he said. "I'm sure somebody's going to want to get a piece of the action in the (school) buildings."
That technology could put mobile broadband access in the hands of free-and-reduced-lunch students, if the FCC program were expanded, he said.
"They could get subsidized broadband," Brown said. "But nobody's doing it here in Greenville."
Ron Barnett, The Greenville (S.C.) News