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White House Adviser Talks Up Joint Purchasing for Ed Tech

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The ConnectED initiative launched by President Obama in June will eventually create greater opportunities for states and school districts to make joint purchasing decisions that will help them lower the cost of educational technology and the content that goes with it, according to Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the President for economic policy.

Speaking about ConnectED at the 2013 Educational Technology Summit in Washington today, Sperling explained that a byproduct of the goal to give 99 percent of the nation's schools access to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet within five years is scalability that will make superintendents see that digital learning "is affordable and within our reach."

When asking companies to create content for various learning devices, "you don't want that to be a philanthropic" request, said Sperling. "If devices are scarce, the number of software developers devoting time to building [content] will be scarce as well."

Without connected schools, it will "hold back the scale needed to pull in the low-cost educational devices, the content. Then the cycle goes negative. School districts, schools, and states look at it and say, 'It's too expensive,'" and they fail to leverage their buying power, he said.

"Mooresville (N.C.) is an inspirational school district," said Sperling, pointing to it as an example of how a successful digital conversion can improve outcomes. "It is number two in the state for student achievement," he noted. At the same time, it is 114th out of 115 districts in terms of per-student funding.

"They showed what was possible. But they're leasing laptops each year, at (a cost of) probably $200 a year [per laptop]. They should have the ability to purchase a laptop for perhaps a fraction of that; but that was the only option," he said. "If Mooresville had the entire state of North Carolina" making purchasing on a statewide contract, it could reduce the cost, he noted.

Terri Haas, chief financial officer for Mooresville, told Education Week the lease-purchase program costs the district approximately $950,000 per year, and the devices are usually upgraded every two years.

Sperling cautioned attendees at the Washington event that they should not view the ConnectED initiative primarily through the lens of technology, dollars, or numbers. "ConnectED cannot be seen by the public or anyone else as fundamentally being about wires, or wireless, or even the coolest new gadgets," Sperling said. "The power of ConnectED is what it means in the classroom."

"Our lack of universal high-speed connectivity is the thing that holds back the entire educational ecosystem; this is the item that may be creating the kind of negative cycle that keeps our students behind," he said.

Sperling described a future where students who are struggling with mastering a concept can practice on their personal learning devices, then request help from a teacher without risking embarrassment for posing questions in front of the class. Groups of students can move ahead as well. "The ConnectED vision can help keep more of our children from all walks of life living and learning together, without holding anyone back," he said.

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