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Modernizing E-Rate to Connect Kids

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By guest blogger Carri Schneider

The potential of technology to personalize learning, to boost achievement and to better equip learners to thrive in college and career is no secret. Yet, to realize this potential, kids must be connected. All kids.

Last week, the FCC took an important first step in better aligning the E-Rate program to the potential of potential of technology to impact learning. Citing changes in the nature of connectivity, Chairman Wheeler's draft proposal will help ensure students all students have reliable, high speed access by committing at least $1 billion in funds to support Wi-Fi networks that will connect over 10 million school students wirelessly in 2015 with an allocation for another $1 billion for 2016. In addition to expanding access, the proposed changes will also make E-Rate dollars go further, simplify the application process and prioritize consortia to drive down pricing and accelerates deployment.

A report released from the FCC last week shows state by state benefits of the proposed E-Rate Modernization Order. The report also reveals that nationwide, the proposal would increase funding for Wi-Fi 75 percent for rural schools and 60 percent for urban schools, allowing an additional 44 million students and 16,000 libraries to have access to Wi-Fi services by 2019, all within existing program funding.

Funds For Learning notes that under the FCC's plan the nation's most economically challenged schools would receive the most support - yet all schools would receive some support for their on-campus connectivity needs.

In urging support for both immediate and future action on modernization through the FCC's plan Karen Cator of Digital Promise contends, "This E-rate order provides an opportunity to use available funds today to improve connectivity for millions of students...This immediate action can help us take advantage of the growing opportunity to improve learning right away and continue to do so going forward."

The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) - an organization that has been active in advocating for updated policy to support better connectivity since the release of its 2012 The Broadband Imperative Report - also urges support. SETDA's Doug Levin explains , "The 'shift to digital' is well-underway in K-12 education and with it comes the need for ongoing budget and investment for broadband, for learning devices, for software and content, for professional development, and for technical support. The Chairman's proposal will provide districts and states with greater insights into the federal support they can expect to receive under E-rate, so other public and private resources can be devoted to the necessary and complementary investments required to support student learning in a digital age."

The proposal is in line with recommendations found in a June consensus letter signed by more than 100 school districts, digital learning advocates, businesses, civil rights organizations, and education reform organizations. John Bailey, ExcelinEd Vice President of Policy and Executive Director of Digital Learning Now, urges support for Wheeler's plan with five key recommendations for the Commissioners who will consider the proposal over the coming weeks:

  • First and foremost, continue to act expeditiously. If approved this summer, these much-needed reforms can be in place by the 2015-16 school year.
  • Second, prioritize Wi-Fi. Dedicating a portion of E-Rate funds solely for Wi-Fi would help address one of the program's primary challenges: over the last several years, funding for Priority 1 services (internet access for schools and libraries) crowded out funding for Priority 2 services (the internal connections required to bring Wi-Fi into classrooms and within libraries). As a result, just five percent of schools and one percent of libraries received support for internal connections.
  • Third, applicants need certainty. When schools and libraries know how much funding they can expect each year, they are able to take a more thoughtful and long-term approach to the E-Rate program, and avoid inefficient, year-to-year technology decisions.
  • Fourth, the program requires substantial simplification. Far too many applicants—especially small, rural applicants—are deterred or eliminated by an overly-complicated application process. Tinkering around the edges will not be enough to make E-Rate accessible to these high-need schools and libraries. Instead, the FCC should commit to a significant overhaul.
  • And finally, the E-Rate program is paid for by ordinary Americans through their monthly phone bills . Any decisions about the size of the program should be made after this round of substantial reforms has been implemented.

Personalized, digital learning boosts learning outcomes and extends student access to high-quality learning opportunities, but requires connectivity. Research shows that technology can facilitate improved student access to Deeper Learning opportunities by giving learners digital tools that customize the educational experience and serve individual needs on his/her own unique learning path. The NMC Horizon Report K-12 identifies several key trends that are accelerating the adoption of educational technology in schools--among them rethinking the roles of teachers, shifting to Deeper Learning approaches and rethinking how schools work. Broadband boosts learning by personalizing learning, connecting kids to the world, meeting special needs, supporting teachers, boosting productivity and encouraging collaboration. Universal, reliable access is required to fulfill the vision laid out in Aspen Task Force report Learner At the Center of A Networked World. Schools that are making a difference for kids -- like those in Digital Promise's League of Innovative Schools and NGLC's grantees -- have made connectivity a priority. Research on online and blended learning adoption confirms that interest in learning models that expand student access to educational technology continue to rise.

If we're going to scale blended learning and deeper learning efforts, all kids have to be connected. It's going to take a commitment to modernized policies like FCC's current plan for E-Rate reform to get us there.

The FCC Commissioners will vote on Chairman Wheeler's plan during their July 11 meeting. If you are a district leader, technology director, or teacher whose students would benefit from faster Wi-Fi, lower broadband costs, and a more efficient and productive E-rate program, it's important to show the Commissioners your support by adding your name here.

For more information see DLN's E-Rate Brief. Have specific questions about the FCC's plan? See this fact sheet on the proposal and Answers to Common Questions about the E-Rate Modernization Proposal to Get Wi-Fi in ALL Schools and Libraries. Show your support and join the conversation on Twitter using #Wifi4Schools.

Carri Schneider is director of policy & Research at Getting Smart. Follow her on Twitter at @CarriSchneider .

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