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'Mission Accomplished' on K-12 Internet Connectivity: A Conversation With Evan Marwell

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What happens when an energetic former tech entrepreneur and hedge-fund guy decides to wrap his mind around the significant—but decidedly unsexy—problem of sluggish, out-of-date internet connectivity in schools?

You get EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that was a driving force behind the modernization of the federal E-rate program, one of the biggest success stories in education technology over the past decade. In fact, K-12 school connectivity has improved so much over the past few years that the organization recently declared "mission accomplished" and announced it is closing-up shop next year. 

Seven years after Evan Marwell launched EducationSuperHighway, the number of students with strong broadband in their classrooms has catapulted from just 4 million to 45 million.

That means: These students have a fiber optic connection to their school, Wi-Fi access in their classrooms, and meet a minimum standard of 100 kilobits per student. (That's the basic threshold that allows some classes in a school to use technology, like streaming a video or doing a personalized learning lesson, but not the whole school, all at once.)

What's more, schools are well on their way to offering most students an even heftier connection of 1 megabit per student. (That's the level that allows every classroom in a school to do tech focused lessons—like personalized learning or streaming online videos—all at one time.) About 28 percent of schools already have that capability, and the number is likely to climb higher, Marwell said.  

"We've made dramatic progress on the number of students who can use technology in the classroom," Marwell said. "We're now starting to see an acceleration of schools where every classroom can use technology every day."

Education Week recently chatted with Marwell about what he sees as the future of education technology, and how to get something big done in education.

There are still huge tech equity issues around the country. Plenty of schools don't have access to technology, or if they do, it doesn't work well. Is it really fair to declare "mission accomplished?"

"Our mission was to put high-speed broadband in every classroom in America. So in terms of our mission, yes, I think it's completely fair to say that we will have accomplished our mission," Marwell said.

But education technology itself has a long way to go, he added.

"Our mission is the beginning point," he said. "It is not the end-point for technology in education. If you don't have good broadband in the classroom, you have no opportunity to use technology in the classroom. Then you need devices. Then you need content and applications. Then you need teachers to be trained in how to use technology effectively. My sense is that while we're not 100 percent, the device issue is largely being solved by the marketplace. Then you have content and applications. I think we are still in the early days of that, but a lot of progress is being made. The venture capital community is investing billions of dollars in ed tech. There's a lot of stuff happening but I wouldn't say we've cracked the code yet."

The fourth thing, he emphasized, is professional development for teachers. "If you really want to get a place where technology is making a difference in the classroom, teachers have to change their pedagogy. This is where, I would say, we are getting ready to emerge from the pioneer phase. We need to cross that chasm to where most teachers are doing this. And that's going to be a big lift."

If there's so much left to do, why isn't EducationSuperHighway going to help do it? 

Education SuperHighway just isn't designed as a PD shop or a content creator, Marwell said.

"Our organization was built for a specific mission and that was to put broadband in every classroom," he said. "We are not application developers. We do not presume to know how to tell teachers how to teach differently. That's not the staff that we have. That's not the mission that we were built for. I personally believe that organizations are built to succeed at solving one problem. They're not really good at pivoting to a new problem."

The expansion of broadband is a huge success story. But how much did EducationSuperHighway really have to do with that success?

Quite a bit, at least in Marwell's estimation. Back in 2012, "no one was really focused on this issue," Marwell said. But EducationSuperHighway had collected data through what it called the National School Speed Test on where schools stood on connectivity. That helped push the Obama administration to launch ConnectED, which called for putting highspeed broadband in 99 percent of classrooms. The Federal Communications Commission responded by making a series of changes to the E-rate program, such as boosting its budget from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion, including adjustments for inflation.

What's more, the plan included new transparency requirements, allowing districts to get a sense of who was buying what, from whom, and at what price, driving the cost of bandwidth down by as much as 90 percent, Marwell said.

Before that happened, "we literally had school districts that were right next to each other buying the same bandwidth from the same vendor and paying 8 times difference in pricing. Once you created transparency, that just sort of started driving that thing down," he said.

Then, EducationSuperHighway got governors on board, ultimately partnering with all 50 states.

"We went to governors and we said, hey, here's an education issue that you guys can actually solve. Not make progress, but actually solve." Marwell said. "Most governors get 20 people a week coming to them and telling them they have a problem, and how to fix it. But almost nobody says we will do the work to fix it for you."

To be sure, EducationSuperHighway wasn't the only group pushing for ConnectED and e-rate modernizaton. Credit also goes to the Federal Communications Commission under Chairman Tom Wheeler, the Obama White House, participating governors, and an alphabet soup of advocates, including the, CoSN (which represents chief technology officers), state e-rate coordinators, the Council of Chief State School Officers, EdLink, AASA, the School Administrators Association, and more.

What needs to happen with infrastructure to sustain all this progress?

"The most important thing is we need to ensure that the E-rate program stays intact," Marwell said. "The genius of the folks back in 1996 who created the E-rate program as a perpetual program was that they understood the needs of schools were going to change, the needs for more capacity was gonna be there, new technologies were going to come available. The E-rate program needs to continue to support that. This is arguably one of the most successful federal program changes in history. We just need to make sure it doesn't get messed with."

Beyond that, a lot of the infrastructure is in place—the fiber optic cables that were part of the ConnectED initiative will be able to stay in place for decades. But there will need to be key maintenance: Wi-Fi networks will continue to need to get upgraded, as more and more and more classrooms start using technology and high-speed networks. And schools are going to continue to need more and more bandwidth—in fact demand for bandwidth rises about 50 percent a year, Marwelll said. 

What would be your advice to others seeking to make change in education and finding themselves frustrated?

"I think my first advice would be to start with a finite goal," Marwell said. "I really believe that one of the reasons we've been as successful as we have been is because we had a very specific goal. It was one I believed we could accomplish in eight years and it turns out that's gonna be about right. I think a lot of people who are trying to make change, part of their problem is they get mission creep and it diverts you."

His second piece of advice? "Figure out how to use data to drive your mission," he said. EducationSuperHighway provided the Obama administration with data that helped convince it to launch ConnectED, and gave data to the FCC to help inform the E-rate update. It also took data to governors to get them on board, showing them that connectivity was a very concrete, solveable problem.

Third: "Figure out how to get government partners involved. Everybody thinks about policy as the primary thing governments can do," he said. "But our experience has been, if you support them correctly, governors can be huge accelerators on implementation. We went to governors because we knew they were the channel for us to get to districts. Nobody knew EducationSuperHighway, but they sure knew who the Idaho State Department of Education was."

How did you get your message out?

Partly by staying out of the way of policymakers who wanted to talk about the issue themselves.

Marwell said he kept advice from a friend in mind: "You will be amazed what you can accomplish if you let other people take the credit. So that has been our operating mantra. We are not, generally speaking, out in front on this stuff. Our job is to help it get done so other people can take the credit, whether it was President Obama, or the FCC, or the governors, or the state department of education, or whoever. We have always been about letting other people take the credit."

What's next for you professionally?

Marwell said he's really interested in the question of "how can we leverage data and technology to make government more effective. I don't know what the specific thing is, but that's my broad theme. I'm 100 percent clear that I really want to stay in the impact business."

EducationSuperHighway is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Ford Foundation, all of which have provided support to Education Week. 

Photo: Courtesy of EducationSuperHighway


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