School & District Management

New Initiatives Signal Shift in U.S. Ed-Tech Leadership

By Ian Quillen — September 26, 2011 5 min read
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In what appear to be the latest moves in a shift of emphasis from financing to facilitating education technology, the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission this month both have helped launch initiatives that were billed as major breakthroughs but involved the two organizations as agents of collaboration, not primary funders.

Last week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski attended as Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp. officially announced its Internet Essentials program, which will give families of students who receive free school lunches access to broadband Internet service for $9.95 a month, before taxes.

The move came in response to the FCC’s call for Internet providers to offer cheaper access to disadvantaged and underserved students, Mr. Genachowski said. Comcast, which announced the service on Sept. 20 at an event at Ballou High School in Washington, is receiving neither aid nor a tax break from the federal government for offering the service. It is, however, doing so based on a condition the FCC and Comcast negotiated into Comcast’s acquisition in January of NBC Universal, the parent company of TV networks NBC and Telemundo.

“It was obviously something that was very important to” the FCC, said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s vice president of government relations. “So we said, ‘Why don’t we do this and we’ll make this a voluntary condition of the transaction closing?’”

‘Convener or Facilitator’

The week before, at a Sept. 16 White House briefing, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched the Digital Promise center, a congressionally authorized clearinghouse dedicated to identifying, supporting, and publicizing the most effective education technology innovations.

The Education Department will provide about $500,000 in startup funding for the center, with additional money coming from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Both philanthropies also help underwrite reporting in Education Week.)

But the department’s strategy in the initiative appears to be to link ideas with organizations that can fund them to scale, such as the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that announced a $15 million grant to the center to support research on how best to create digital-learning environments.

“Digital Promise will serve as convener or facilitator, and as potential funder of advanced and/or directed development,” Karen Cator, the director of the department’s office of educational technology, said in an email. “In the circumstances that learning technologies are effective for improving outcomes, they should be an allowable purchase under a variety of federal funding streams.”

The apparent shift is perhaps not surprising, given a reduction of just more than $1 billion from the Education Department’s discretionary budget after last April’s budget compromise between the White House and Congress, which included scrapping $100 million in annual funding to the need- and formula-based Enhancing Education Through Technology program. In its early years during the beginning of the last decade, the program offered as much as $700 million in annual funding.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has also proposed a $90 million education research initiative called ARPA-ED, which would include education technology, as part of its fiscal 2012 budget plan for the Education Department, but that project appears to be in limbo. Until its fate is settled, partnerships with philanthropies and corporations such as Comcast may represent the main strategy for federal education technology leadership.

Broadband Effort

Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, is more encouraged by the FCC’s role in pushing Comcast’s Internet Essentials program than he is by the Education Department’s creation of Digital Promise.

“I think this administration has been very strong in terms of making clear the public commitment to [closing] the digital divide that broadband providers should have,” Mr. Krueger said. But on Digital Promise, he said: “We’re cautious that this is largely a privately funded effort with very little federal commitment. Does it have sustainability over the coming years?”

Comcast’s Internet Essentials service will be available to customers who qualify and who live in Comcast’s coverage areas, which do not include New York City or Los Angeles, but do include the next 18 largest media markets in the United States. To qualify, customers must have at least one child who qualifies for free school lunch through the National School Lunch Program, must not have subscribed to Comcast’s services within the previous 90 days, and must not have an overdue Comcast bill.

Internet Essentials will also provide families with a voucher to purchase a computer for $149.99, before taxes, as well as to have access to free digital-literacy training.

“This is not a sales gimmick, [but] rather an endorsed initiative of the FCC to provide broadband to low-income students that would benefit,” Bailey Mitchell, the chief technology officer for the 37,000-student Forsyth County, Ga., school system and the chairman of the board of CoSN, said in an email. Mr. Mitchell’s district has been a leader of the “bring your own technology” movement, in which schools have allowed students to access the Web in class from their own mobile devices.

“We are seeing the large amounts of bandwidth consumed from 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. [on Forsyth’s district network], with students connected inbound to our learning-management systems and instructional resources from home, effectively extending the school day,” Mr. Mitchell said.

The program appears to be the first of its kind offered by a major broadband provider—Comcast reaches 22.8 million cable and 17.4 million Internet customers—and could be especially significant in states that have adopted requirements for online learning.

Meanwhile, the Digital Promise center, which will be run by a board of congressionally appointed experts, is one of the most visible in a string of efforts from the Education Department to connect existing resources and thought leaders on educational technology.

For example, the National Learning Registry, which is still under construction, will attempt to unify digital education resources from federal agencies including nasa and the Smithsonian Institution, among others. The Education Department has also been an adviser to the Digital Learning Now campaign, a collaboration by the Foundation for Excellence in Education and Alliance for Excellent Education that is pushing states to lift policies the organizers see as barriers to digital learning.

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2011 edition of Education Week as New Initiatives Signal Shift in U.S. Ed-Tech Leadership

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