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White House Adviser: Tech Connectivity a "Tipping Point" in Ed. Equity

By guest blogger Ben Kamisar

Washington

Education technology advocates and government officials, including one of the Obama administration's top economic advisers, on Tuesday described slow and unreliable Web connectivity as a major source of inequity in the nation's schools—and touted a federal plan they said would help close those gaps.

The forum on "Bridging the Digital Divide," sponsored by the Washington Post, brought together ed-tech entrepreneurs, administration officials, researchers, and business leaders, who shared their perspectives on how to make access to reliable broadband and innovative technologies more commonplace across K-12 systems and in communities nationwide.

Gene Sperling, the director of the president's National Economic Council, lamented  inequalities across school systems that he said could be attributed partly to inadequate technology.

Many schools lack the ability to stream two videos at a time in the entire building, he told attendees.

"A lot of schools were set up to have a computer lab," he said. "They were not set up with the vision that in every single classroom, somebody has an individualized learning device on at their desk."

The administration views connectivity as a "tipping point" that could level the playing field on many fronts, Sperling said. Expanding access to broadband could create a broader market for mobile technology devices that spur competition to create cheaper, quality tools for use in schools.

Sperling focused on  Obama's "ConnectEd" plan, which aims to create more flexibility in the federal E-Rate program, while giving 99 percent of students access to broadband and high-speed Internet access in schools.

"Our vision is a classroom where everybody's at their desk and involved in some form of individualized digital learning," he said. "They could have a learning device that they are working from [and] they could be going at their own pace."

The E-rate program, which relies on funding generated through fees on telecommunications providers, supports Web connectivity in the nation's schools and libraries. Critics of the E-rate program have said that it places too much emphasis on funding outmoded technologies, drags districts and libraries into a morass of red tape, and provides too little money to schools.

The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the E-rate, is currently considering a plan to rework the program in ways that could set new priorities for the types of technologies it funds, among many other changes. Democrats on the commission have endorsed goals similar to those put forward by Obama. Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner, has questioned some of those priorities, and said the program lacks financial accountability and incentives to control costs.

Mignon L. Clyburn, an FCC commissioner who spoke after Sperling, said that the panel was likely to vote on a proposal to make changes to the E-rate in the spring of 2014.

"We will do what is best, what is prudent, what is efficient, and what the American people expect us to do—that is to bridge these communication divides," Clyburn said. "We are going to do our part."

Seventy-four percent of white Americans have access to broadband at home, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. But that number drops to 64 percent and 53 percent for blacks and Hispanics, respectively.

Education and household income are also strongly correlated with home broadband access. Almost 90 percent of Americans who either have a college education or make more than $75,000 a year have broadband in their homes, while just under 37 percent of Americans without a high school diploma and 54 percent making less than $30,000 a year use broadband in their homes.

Estella Pyfrom, the CEO of Brilliant Bus, described her hands-on efforts to bring ed-tech to those without their own devices. The former West Palm Beach, Fla. guidance counselor now drives around the country in a bus equipped with computer stations, parking it outside of schools and community centers without adequate access to technology, allowing students to use the digital tools to augment their lessons.

"The bus is just a big gadget," she said. "Our overall mission is to go to underserved communities and help bridge the digital divide." 

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