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Obama Unveils Plans for Online 'Hub' to Link Tech Companies, Schools

The White House today is announcing the launch of a new, online "hub" to link technology companies with schools that could benefit from their services, part of President Obama's private-sector-infused "ConnectED" plan designed to improve K-12 digital access.

In a related effort, the president is also unveiling an effort to improve technology, including access to high-speed Internet, in Bureau of Indian Education schools through the federal E-rate program. That move comes as Obama makes a broader push—unpopular in some quarters—to revamp that historically troubled agency.

The new ConnectEd Hub is found on the White House's website. Vistors can click on links to apply for tech company products and services, through that page.

The Obama administration has predicted that the ConnectED plan will channel about $2 billion in ed-tech goods and services to the nation's schools. In a blog post published Friday morning, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council, said that 10 companies, including Adobe, Microsoft, Prezi, Sprint, and Verizon, were providing resources through ConnectED that would be accessible to K-12 officials through the new hub. Those resources include hardware, software, academic content, and wireless equipment.

The Obama administration has argued that ConnectED will help address longstanding and well-documented shortcomings in schools' online access and tech capabilties, as well as encourage innovation among tech developers. Duncan and Zients sounded those themes in their post.

ConnectED is already "allowing [educators] to unlock teaching opportunities they have tried to implement for years," they wrote. "And, we've heard from venture capitalists who tell us that they are taking a second look at the education technology market, and are encouraging startups to develop for schools."

 At the same time, some observers have questioned whether the corporate commitments will be sustained over time, and whether they will really be directed toward providing students with resources focused on education—not just tech-based entertainment.

On Friday, Obama is also expected to put forward plans to improve Web connectivity in Bureau of Indian Education schools. As part of that plan, federal Department of the Interior will appoint a specialist to provide technical assistance to make applications for the federal E-rate program from bureau schools more competitive.

The E-rate provides schools and libraries with discounts on telecommunications services. Critics have complained that the program, which has a budget of more than $2 billion a year, is both underfunded and focused on the outdated technologies. This year, with Obama's urging, leaders of the Federal Communications Commission have announced plans to put more money toward school broadband and make other changes, though many of those details have not been finalized.

An intriguing detail about the new E-rate specialist: The position will be funded "in coordination" with the Broad Foundation, a major philanthropic player in the K-12 world, administration officials said. 

In addition, the Interior Department will put forward a directive that gives priority to right-of-way permits for broadband to reach BIE schools over the next two years. The federal agency will also take steps to create better Internet connectivity to more than 1,000 Native American students who live in federally funded dorms while attending public schools away from their reservations, administration officials. 

Many of those dorms have poor technology, officials said.Through the new effort, Verizon, along with Alcatel-Lucent and Cross Wireless, will provide those facilities with wireless technology, at no cost, for the next two years. 

Obama is rolling out the technology effort for the BIE, which directly operates 57 schools for Native Americans and oversese 126 others run by tribes that contract with the agency, as the president is proposing to make other, sweeping changes at the bureau. As my colleague Lesli Maxwell reported this week, Obama's plans for BIE would have it eventually give up direct operations over schools and make a series of changes in school policy in areas such as teacher evaluation. Some tribal leaders see the plan as inflexible and an infringement on their sovereignty.


Follow @EdWeekSCavanagh and @EdWeekIandI for the latest news on industry and innovation in education.

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