By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis
President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled new resources for school districts to use in boosting broadband infrastructure and improving ed-tech programs during a meeting with more than 100 school superintendents at the White House on Wednesday.
The new resources included the “Future Ready Schools: Building Technology Infrastructure for Learning” guide, which features ideas and best practices for improving the use of educational technology and a professional learning toolkit that focuses on how to provide support and professional development to educators around digital learning.
The superintendents at the summit also signed a Future Ready District Pledge in which they promised to improve connectivity, foster access to devices and digital content, and mentor other districts in the transition to digital learning. And the federal government will be holding regional summits on digital learning and connectivity in the future.
The day-long summit builds upon the president’s ConnectEd Initiative, announced last year, that aims to connect 99 percent of the country’s students with high-speed broadband in their schools within five years. The goal, Obama said, is to give students access to the type of education they need to compete internationally. Currently, less than 40 percent of public schools have high-speed Internet in their classrooms, he said. Education officials also emphasized guidance on how to use federal funds from programs such as Title I, Title II, Title III, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for school technology purchases
Obama cited a need to “yank our schools into the 21st century when it comes to technology and providing the tools and training that teachers need to use that technology to prepare all our students for the competition that they are going to face globally.”
Much of that starts with infrastructure, Obama emphasized. He said many teachers and students are unable to access or use quality digital resources and software, either due to a lack of high-speed Internet in their classrooms, or due to a dearth of devices.
“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, the least we can do is expect that our schools will” provide it to students, he said.
Obama and others at the White House summit touted a proposed boost to the federal E-rate program as an important step in improving the use of technology in schools. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the fund, recently proposed raising its funding cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion a year. The FCC also overhauled the E-rate in July, investing an additional $2 billion in the program.
As part of a new array of resources for school districts and educators, Obama announced that online learning platform edX, which had already agreed to provide free online Advanced Placement courses for high school students, will in the future also seek to provide certification for students who successfully complete the courses. In addition, MOOC provider Coursera will deliver free, online professional development to school districts over the next two years. Educators can use the company’s course completion certificates for continuing education credits, Obama said.
Other companies have already pledged to aid the ConnectEd effort to the tune of over $2 billion in goods and services. The Obama administration has created an online hub to match districts and the resources being provided by the companies.
Obama highlighted superintendents in the audience who have worked to creatively break down the barriers to Internet access in their districts. He noted that Karen Tarasevich, the superintendent of the West Warwick, R.I., school district, has worked to put together a 1-to-1 laptop program in which students take devices home and parents are encouraged to use them for job training programs. To combat the inequity of Internet access for students outside of school, Darryl Adams, the superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District in California, has overseen an effort to mount Wi-Fi routers on school buses and park those buses around the district to provide evening Internet access to students, Obama said.
Duncan acknowledged financial hardships for school districts and the difficulty of finding the dollars to invest in tech infrastructure and devices. He said a less centralized educational system has prevented the United States from bringing these efforts to scale, unlike other countries such as Uruguay, where every student has a digital-learning device, or South Korea, where all schools have high-speed Internet access and digital textbooks. Duncan encouraged districts still spending significant dollars on paper textbooks to instead accelerate the transition from print to digital and reallocate that money with a focus on technology and professional development. “We have to level the playing field for (students) and in many ways we have not,” he said.
Superintendents at the event said the new resources and investments in educational technology are a step in the right direction. “This will definitely make a dent,” said Devin Vodicka, the superintendent of the Vista Unified School District in California. The increasing attention to the issue is “energizing,” he said, but “it’s going to take all of us if we really want to have all students connected.”
But some educational technology leaders who attended the event said connecting schools to high-speed Internet is just the start. Richard Culatta, the director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, said that when schools and educators finally have the high-quality access they need to use digital tools with students, it’s important to make sure they get the training and support to use it effectively. “When we have an infrastructure problem, it’s hard to tell teachers to do better,” he said. “With this investment, we have to make sure that they use it in a meaningful way.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.