ConnectED: Here Comes E-rate 2.0

Although history may remember this week for the revelations of National Security Agency phone and Internet surveillance, delving any deeper into that story may be beyond Headlines staff’s security clearance. So we focus instead on President Barack Obama’s unveiling of ConnectED, an initiative aimed at connecting 99 percent of America’s students to the Internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within 5 years.

“This is not connectivity for connectivity’s sake,” noted Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Gene Sperling, the Director of the National Economic Council. “It is laying the foundation for a vision of classrooms where students are engaged in individualized digital learning and where teachers can assess progress lesson by lesson and day by day. It’s about creating learning environments where students can both succeed and struggle without embarrassment, where barriers for children with disabilities are removed, and where we can bring the most modern, innovative, and up-to-date content into the classroom.”

The White House argues that preparing America’s students with the skills they need to get good jobs and compete with countries around the world will rely increasingly on interactive, individualized learning experiences driven by new technology. But today, millions of students lack high-speed broadband access and fewer than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets their teaching needs. ConnectED would bring high-speed Internet within their reach, with a particular benefit for rural communities that have lagged behind in connectivity.

“We are living in a digital age, and to help our students get ahead, we must make sure they have access to cutting-edge technology,” said President Obama. “So today, I’m issuing a new challenge for America – one that families, businesses, school districts and the federal government can rally around together – to connect virtually every student in America’s classrooms to high-speed broadband Internet within five years, and equip them with the tools to make the most of it.”

The President introduced ConnectED in Mooresville, North Carolina. Mooresville is in the bottom ten out of 115 state school districts in spending per student, but performs second in student achievement. Mooresville has accomplished this by going all-in on the promise of education technology, and since providing one-to-one digital devices for every student and training teachers on how to use them effectively in the classroom, graduation, academic achievement, and attendance rates are up significantly. The Mooresville Graded School District distributes one device per student (grades 3-12) and uses predominantly digital curriculum content. All teachers are trained on how to integrate technology into their teaching. Since beginning the shift to greater use of technology, learning in Mooresville has changed. As superintendent Mark Edwards has said, “This is not about the technology. It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction — preparing students for their future, not our past.”

In the classroom, students now collaborate in small groups rather than listening to lectures. They are using individualized software that functions like a personal tutor, adapting to their pace of learning. Teachers receive immediate feedback on students’ progress and can better direct their lessons and their teaching to meet each student’s needs. There has been strong evidence of success in Mooresville. The district’s graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years ago. Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student, but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.

The President called on the Federal Communications Commission to modernize and leverage its existing schools and libraries universal service support program, commonly known as the E-rate program, to meet this goal. Currently, the E-rate program helps schools and libraries to obtain affordable telecommunications services, broadband Internet access and internal network connections. Eligible schools, school districts and libraries may apply individually or as part of a consortium. Funding may be requested under five categories of service: telecommunications, telecommunications services, Internet access, internal connections, and basic maintenance of internal connections. Discounts for support depend on the level of poverty and whether the school or library is located in an urban or rural area. The discounts range from 20 percent to 90 percent of the costs of eligible services. E-rate program funding is based on demand up to an annual Commission-established cap of about $2.3 billion.

As an independent agency, the FCC does not answer directly to the President. Any changes to the program’s structure would have to go through a rule-making procedure and be approved by a majority of the commission’s members. Currently, there are three FCC commissioners and two were quick to voice support for the President’s proposal. Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said, “Over the last 15 years, the FCC’s E-Rate program has successfully helped bring Internet access to our nation’s schools and libraries. But basic Internet access is no longer sufficient, and the FCC has been taking a hard look at ways to further modernize the E-Rate program to bring robust broadband to schools and libraries, especially those in low income and rural communities.” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said , “It is time to answer the President’s call to upgrade the E-Rate program for the 21st Century. It is time for E-Rate 2.0. We need to protect what we have done, build on it, and put it on a course to provide higher speeds and greater opportunities in the days ahead. This initiative is an exciting effort that has my wholehearted and enthusiastic support.”

ConnectED is a multi-faceted proposal to improve education with technology. The proposal calls for:

Connecting America’s Schools

  • The ConnectED initiative would, within five years, connect 99 percent of America’s students, through next-generation broadband (at speeds no less than 100Mbps and with a target of 1Gbps) to, and high-speed wireless within, their schools and libraries. The President is calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to modernize and leverage the existing E-Rate program, and leverage the expertise of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to deliver this connectivity to states, districts, and schools.
  • ConnectED would build upon the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) that was part of the 2009 economic stimulus law and the long-standing Universal Service Fund to provide new learning opportunities to level the playing field for rural students. BTOP connected around 10% of America’s schools to next-generation broadband.

Improving Teaching

  • The ConnectED initiative invests in improving the skills of teachers, ensuring that every educator in America receives support and training in using education technology tools to improve student learning. Using existing federal funding through Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Department of Education will work with states and school districts to invest in this kind of professional development to help teachers keep pace with changing technology. Additionally, federal funds under Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act may be used to train educators to use the educational technology needed to implement new, computer-based assessments of student learning.
  • ConnectED will lead to new resources for teachers from any school, at any time, to open their classrooms to interactive demonstrations, lessons from world-renowned experts, or the opportunity to build learning communities and to collaborate with other educators across the country or world. New digital education tools that allow for real-time assessments of student learning, provide more immediate feedback to drive professional development, and enable the creation of interactive online lessons can empower teachers to understand each student’s strengths and weaknesses and design lessons and activities that better meet their needs.

Private-Sector Innovation

  • Leading companies in technology are capable of producing feature-rich educational devices that are price-competitive with basic textbooks. Districts that choose to purchase devices can come together to purchase them in volume to achieve greater cost savings — but purchasing choices remain in the hands of local educational leaders.
  • With access to high-speed broadband and digital technologies, students can have access to more rigorous and engaging classes, new learning resources, rich visualizations of complex concepts, and instruction in any foreign language. With new technology, students also have increased opportunities to work at their own speed and receive the additional one-on-one help they need to develop their knowledge and skills.
  • A robust market in educational software can unlock the full educational potential of these investments and create American jobs and export opportunities in a global education marketplace of over $1 trillion. Third-party validators can help schools find educational software (including apps) that provide content aligned with college- and career-ready standards being adopted and implemented by states across America.
  • Many of the U.S.’s leading competitors are moving forward with aggressive investments in digital learning and technology education. The durability of American competitiveness will be tied to our ability to produce graduates with the skills the economy demands.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, who helped create the E-rate program in the mid-1990s, said, "I share the president's enthusiasm for expanding high-speed broadband connections to our schools and libraries and agree the FCC should update the successful E-Rate program to meet that goal. At a recent oversight hearing of the FCC, I received public commitments from all members of the FCC to work with me to update and strengthen the E-Rate program. Today, I join the President and renew my call on the FCC to fund and adapt E-Rate to meet the needs of a data-driven society." [Note: FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel served as Rockefeller’s Senior Communications Counsel before joining the FCC]

"I wholeheartedly support the President's call to modernize the E-Rate program in order to bring faster broadband speeds to our nation's schools and libraries," said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who recently outlined a similar proposal with FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel. Writing in Politico, Rep Eshoo and Commissioner Rosenworcel proposed “E-Rate 2.0” with a goal of delivering broadband access capacity of 1 gigabit per 1,000 students in schools and high-speed access in libraries, too. “By using the E-Rate program to uniformly increase bandwidth, we can avoid fracturing this bandwidth update through every local school jurisdiction. This will yield greater opportunities for consortia and purchasing savings. Moreover, it will bring scale that will help develop a market for exciting new digital age education materials and teaching tools.”

In a speech at the Washington Education Technology Policy Summit in April 2013, Commissioner Rosenworcel outlined four steps to achieve E-Rate 2.0:

  • Increase E-Rate funding so that it can handle the increasing demand.
  • By the 2015 school year, every school should have access to 100 Megabits per 1000 students; by 2020, every school should have access to 1 Gigabit per 1000 students.
  • Encourage and institute new and creative public-private partnerships.
  • Simplify the process for applicants.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Michael Powell welcomed the White House announcement saying the NCTA looks forward to exploring “new ideas that will wisely modernize existing support mechanisms and connect America's schools with new tools for education and learning.”

“In today’s ultra-fast, super-competitive global economy, all students and teachers need to be up to speed and connected to the information superhighway. Currently, however, far too many are stuck in proverbial traffic jams or idling at on-ramps because they lack access to high-speed Internet connections,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former West Virginia governor. “With today’s announcement, President Obama makes it possible for every school to build on the ‘Mooresville momentum’ and ensures that all students are on the same track, moving at the fastest possible speed, and heading toward higher standards and better learning outcomes.”

“President Obama’s announcement is a giant leap toward realizing CoSN’s and the administration’s shared goal of ensuring that all students have adequate bandwidth to maximize online and digital learning,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. “We have long advocated the need to equip classrooms with greater bandwidth and provide E-rate with additional funding. The bold vision put forth by the President can be realized by adding just a few pennies per month to our phone bills and is an investment that will create a 21st century learning environment. This is an investment that we cannot afford not to make.”

Benton Foundation Chairman Charles Benton said, “I commend the President on his commitment to education and his understanding on the vital role of telecommunications in expanding educational opportunity and improving educational outcomes. This is just the kind of bold proposal our country needs to realize the National Broadband Plan goal of bringing gigabit broadband service to every community in the U.S."

For now, advocates consider it unlikely that there will be substantial changes in the E-rate until a new chairman is in place. Recently, former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell warned that the replacements for former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and himself might not be installed until late fall, if then. So E-rate 2.0 may take some time to launch. But we’ll be tracking it and we’ll see you in the Headlines.

By Kevin Taglang.