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Are We ConnectED Yet? The Year in Review

On a sunny day last June in North Carolina, President Obama visited Mooresville Middle School to unveil a new initiative crucial to the primarily student audience. “Today, I’m issuing a new challenge for America […] 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.”

There has been a flurry of activity attempting to follow through on the ambitious goals the President laid out exactly one year ago today. As those goals—increased connectivity, private sector partnerships, and updated teacher training—have taken form, there have been some promising developments. Delivering on these promises will require sustained effort, however. Further, making the most of these new technologies will require a substantial shift in how teachers are instructing and impact how students are learning in classrooms around the country.

How's it going so far?

Connecting 99 Percent of Students to High-Speed Broadband

Achieving the President’s goal of connecting almost all students to high-speed broadband completely hinges upon current efforts by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to modernize their E-rate program. As currently structured, the program has done tremendous work connecting school and library buildings with Internet service, but because of how funds are distributed, classrooms within the schools are often left unconnected. Further, the infrastructure connecting many schools will need to be upgraded to higher-capacity infrastructure.

Thankfully, the FCC’s efforts are moving forward. Since last fall, they have received over a thousand public comments on numerous aspects of the program. Earlier this year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler also announced that $2 billion in repurposed funding will be distributed to support school and library investment in high-speed broadband and the FCC has said it will be releasing the forthcoming changes to the E-rate program this summer. It remains to be seen how ambitious these changes will be though. A recent report from EducationSuperHighway and the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) indicated that meeting the President’s speed target (one gigabit per 1,000 students) will require an additional $3.2 billion investment in addition to existing efforts. While the E-rate program itself is certainly receiving a much-needed reboot, regulatory changes may not be enough on their own to get schools ConnectED without an overall increase in program funding.

Partnerships with the Private Sector

During this January’s State of the Union, the President announced a series of partnerships with several corporations to provide devices and services to students throughout the country. These included donations of products and services amounting to $750 million from a host of corporations, including Apple, AT&T, Microsoft, and Verizon. Additionally, this past month, Esri—a company well-known for its ArcGIS Online mapping software—provided free accounts to 100,000 K-12 schools throughout the country, a donation valued at $1 billion.

It remains to be seen whether these private sector partnerships will be sustainable. While these initial contributions are a first step, devices need upgrades, services come with monthly costs, and software have licensing agreements that often limit the number of simultaneous users. We need more information about the service conditions of these donations (i.e. will schools need to start covering monthly service fees after a certain period of time), and additional research will also be necessary to before we can gauge their impact.

Training Teachers to Use New Technologies

In the President’s 2015 Budget Proposal, the Administration proposed a new program to support teachers as they integrate new technologies into their teaching practice. Specifically, the budget proposes $200 million to support a new ConnectEDucators program. It would provide funds to states to improve and increase availability of educational technology resources, and launch a district grant competition to provide educators with high-quality digital instructional resources and professional development. Funding for this new program is subject to Congressional approval—which is never a promising proposition.

In the meantime, the Department of Education has been working with states and school districts to explain how current funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act can be used to invest in these types of professional development. It may be more feasible to prioritize professional development dollars for training on changing technological demands, though the efficacy of new—or current—professional development remains very much an open question.

Each goal laid out by the President has seen some movement over the past year, but clearly we’re not yet fully ConnectED. While there has been quite a bit of movement over the past year, few concrete steps have actually been taken to systematically address gaps in connectivity, access to devices and service, and availability of high-quality professional development opportunities for teachers. There has also been a limited focus on the bigger picture: that through providing connectivity, service, devices, and software to schools throughout the country, we are planning to fundamentally change the methods by which teachers are instructing, and students are learning. To meaningfully meet these goals, current efforts must be connected with a vision of what it means make the most of new technologies in the classroom.