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Updated August 12, 2013
“In a country where we expect free WiFi with our coffee, why shouldn't we have it in our schools?”
So asked President Barack Obama last week in announcing ConnectED, his plan for connecting all schools to the digital age. Acknowledging that success – for individual students, communities and the nation as a whole – in the 21st century is being driven by new technologies, the initiative aims to connect 99% of America’s students to high-speed internet within the next five years.
To meet this goal, President Obama is calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to “modernize and leverage its existing E-Rate program.” E-rate, created by Congress in 1996 and funded through a surcharge on telephone bills, provides discounts to assist schools and libraries in obtaining communications services, including Internet access. Currently, demand for the program much exceeds money available for it – this year districts requested more than twice the FCC’s annual E-rate funding cap.*
In addition to upgrading school connectivity, ConnectED is intended to increase teachers’ skills in using education technology tools to improve student learning. The President is requesting that the U.S. Department of Education work with states and districts to use existing funding to invest in professional learning that helps teachers keep up with changing technology. Also as a part of ConnectED, the President is encouraging the private sector to develop new educational devices and digital content that are price-competitive with basic textbooks, allowing local education leaders to convert as desired.
According to the Administration, ConnectED will particularly benefit rural students by connecting them with learning opportunities comparable to those available to their urban and suburban peers. But it will benefit most, if not all, students to some degree. As of now, the White House reports that fewer than 20% of educators say their school’s internet connection meets their teaching needs. And the average school has about the same connectivity as the average American home, but serves 200 times as many users.
How has the education community reacted to the initiative? Positively, with some caveats.
AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, representing the nation’s public school superintendents, applauds the President’s leadership with this proposal, calling it “one of the boldest efforts in recent memory so clearly focused on ensuring online and district learning resources and tools are available and affordable to all students and communities.”
International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) CEO Brian Lewis said the initiative is “a huge step forward and a big win for students and educators everywhere.” ISTE President Kecia Ray believes it provides “the momentum we needed to help ensure students can thrive in today’s world.”
Principals are applauding the initiative as well. National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti reminds us that “broadband access affects students' abilities to engage in technology-rich learning activities and acquire essential skills” and believes that “the president's ConnectED initiative will help level the playing field.”
In a letter to the President, National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis Van Roekel supported the announcement of ConnectED, which “will help our country’s schools reach the level of broadband capacity needed for our students to learn, create, and ultimately, compete in the 21st century.”
And National School Boards Association (NSBA) Executive Director Tom Gentzel praised the initiative, saying that “increasing high speed Internet connectivity is vital to provide 21st century skills and prepare students and communities to be competitive in a global economy.”
However, there does appear to be an area of common concern: E-rate funding. Gentzel and Van Roekel both mentioned that district requests for assistance are more than double the current resources available. And Lewis and Bartoletti went further, both calling on the President to urge a substantial increase in E-rate’s funding cap.
Still, despite this one issue, consensus seems to be that the ConnectED effort is, as Bartoletti said, “a step in the right direction.”
*See the Learning First Alliance's statement calling for an increase to the E-Rate funding cap.
Image from iStockPhoto
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