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Chairman Wheeler Says 'It's Time for E-Rate to Graduate'...But Is It College-and Career-Ready?

Note: Taryn Hochleitner, a research associate at AEI, is guest posting this week.

For me, a cautious individual by nature, guest blogging for Rick makes me feel like a 15-year-old kid stealing the keys to the family's brand new Ferrari--excited but sort of terrified. Buckle up.

Welcome to THSU.

For the better part of two years I had the distinct pleasure of assisting Rick and Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer at Kaplan, in writing their book Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age. The book is an introduction to "learning engineering," a new mindset for using education technology to improve schooling. Learning engineers generate solutions based on what they know about how students learn and then use technological tools to bring those solutions to life.

But how do we make sure learning engineers have the tools they need?

This week, we'll look at recent proposals to upgrade schools' technological infrastructure and what it will take to make them a reality. Though Breakthrough is now bound and covered I've still got the ed-tech bug, and there were a number of juicy topics I wanted to explore with you (read: lots of discarded drafts). But, dull as it can be, the digital learning conversation has to start with capacity. The movement's success relies as much on fiber and IT departments as flashier concepts like personalization and blended learning.

This issue of capacity is at the center of recent debates over E-Rate, a federal program that discounts telecommunications services for schools and libraries. Policymakers, advocates, districts, and others claim that adequately equipping schools for digital learning pursuits requires "modernizing" the program. E-Rate dates back to 1996--might as well be the technology Stone Age--and just isn't designed to support today's tech-laden classrooms. Not to mention it's riddled with agonizing bureaucratic inefficiencies. At President Obama's urging, the Federal Communications Commission has committed to restructuring the program, with members of Congress, private sector executives, and a number of education groups voicing their support. Now that we have shared aspirations, let's think more about the fun part: execution.

Earlier this month, at a Digital Learning Day celebration at the Library of Congress, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced the first concrete details about the Commission's plans to update E-Rate. In a nod to the program's 18-year coming of age he declared, "It's time for E-Rate to graduate and move on to the next phase of learning." Wheeler outlined some promising developments, showing that the FCC is trying to clear out the cobwebs before adding new practices or funding, with a sense of urgency to boot.

Still, much has yet to be revealed about what a modernized E-Rate will look like. What we do know is that the program is under increased pressure to both fulfill ambitious promises and be more fiscally responsible. In January, Wheeler wrote that E-rate improvements must, "include strong oversight and enforcement to ensure every dollar that is intended to reach schools and libraries gets there and gets the job done."

Thus, the modernization effort cannot move forward without a measurable definition of success, a key challenge facing the FCC. What do we want an improved E-Rate to accomplish? And how will we know if it's working?

In last year's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Commission proposed three major goals for a modernized E-Rate: 1) ensure schools and libraries have affordable access to broadband that "supports digital learning"; 2) maximize the cost-effectiveness of disbursed funds; and 3) streamline program administration. These goals, worthy as they are, are quite broad and up for interpretation.

The FCC also solicited recommendations on the proper metrics to evaluate progress towards these goals. This task becomes especially sticky when we consider that one of E-Rate's directives is to shift from an emphasis on technology for building operation to technology for learning. One of Wheeler's main priorities for a new E-Rate is to move the focus beyond an emphasis on more broadband to "what high-speed Internet connections enable." On that subject, the FCC has asked whether it should measure the educational impact of high-capacity broadband in the classroom and how to do so. Not surprisingly, there seems to be little support for considering student outcomes in such an assessment. How else might we know that E-Rate-discounted broadband is supporting digital learning? An exhausting list of similar questions remain including whether and how to define Internet speed targets, ensure "equitable" access to funds, and set benchmarks for what constitutes "cost-effective" means of fulfilling applicant technology needs.

Further complicating matters is the fact that digital learning is an ever-evolving field filled with experimentation; applicants will be using their E-Rate funded services for a wide range of activities, meaning their needs will vary. The FCC must take care that the measures they come up with are not overly specific.

Determining a proper set of expectations and realistic ways to measure them will be tough, no doubt. But without them, E-Rate likely won't be sufficiently prepared for the "next phase of learning."

--Taryn Hochleitner

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