President Obama’s Ed-Tech Record: Sizing Up Its Impact

By Michelle R. Davis — December 22, 2014 6 min read
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Connect Ed, Connected Educators, Future Ready, Maker Faires, and ed-tech photo-ops. There’s been plenty of activity on digital learning issues from the administration of President Barack Obama, but has it been more about public relations than lasting impact? Education Week decided it’s time to take a look back at some of the ed-tech issues tackled by the country’s first “Internet president.”

1. E-rate: As far back as 2008, then-president-elect Obama talked about the need for the Federal Communications Commission to modernize the E-rate program, which funnels money to schools and libraries to make telecommunications and information services more affordable. Fast forward to this year, when that White House wish for the E-rate overhaul came true. Just this month, the FCC raised the spending cap on the program from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion,a move which ed-tech groups have lauded as monumental. Combine that with the earlier update of the program, making it more relevant to 21st century technologies, and it’s hard to argue that the administration hasn’t delivered. “The modernization of the E-rate was important, but not sufficient,” said Mark Schneiderman, the senior policy director for the Washington-based Software & Information Industry Association, or SIIA. “Many constituents felt that it was rearranging the deck chairs until the permanent increase ensured the impact needed.”

2. Federal Money for Technology: Despite the E-rate spending level, it’s not as though the budget spigot was turned on full blast for ed tech. The Obama administration had earlier red-lined the popular Enhancing Education Through Technology state grant program. Once providing as much as $650 million to states for ed-tech projects, Obama de-funded the EETT program in 2011. Instead, the administration has pushed states and districts to use other pots of federal monies to pay for ed-tech purchases. Earlier this year, the Education Department issued guidance for education leaders on how to use funding from Title I, II, and III and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to pay for technology-related purchases. But some ed-tech groups are still concerned about the loss of EETT, especially with so many demands on the other areas of funding. “There’s been the belief that the federal government shouldn’t have a specific program for technology, that it should be embedded in everything,” said Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. “But when everybody is supposed to fund technology, no one funds technology.”

3. ConnectED: President Obama’s signature technology-related initiative has been evolving. The ConnectED plan, unveiled in 2013, was created to link 99 percent of schools to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet within five years and to boost teachers’ technology skills. This year, the White House announced ConnectED Hub to link tech companies with schools. Apple, Microsoft, Prezi, Sprint, Verizon, and others have already pledged about $2 billion in goods and services to deliver cutting-edge technology into classrooms. However, most of those private-sector investments haven’t yet gotten to students and teachers, said Evan Marwell, the CEO of nonprofit advocacy group Education SuperHighway. “The White House has done a tremendous job getting partners into the system and billions of dollars of pledges, but we haven’t seen the impact of those pledges yet,” he said.

4. Race to the Top: Although the Obama administration’s big education initiative was not specifically ed-tech focused, it’s done a lot to move the needle forward. Now in its final year of implementation, the initial state-grant version of Race to the Top gave about $4 billion to 12 state winners and part of the criteria for those awards was the creation of statewide data systems, and an emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (or STEM). The collection of student data as part of some Race to the Top efforts, however, has also spurred privacy concerns, with critics worrying that sensitive student information could be compromised.

Race To The Top also awarded $360 million to two consortia for the creation of high-quality common assessments, which translated into adaptive or interactive online testing for the Common Core State Standards. But the rollout of these tests has lagged behind schedule and states and districts have struggled with testing glitches and the needed technology upgrades.

On a school-level basis, the Race to the Top district grant program put the focus on personalized learning and technology.And that federal grant money—five winners split $150 million for the 2013 awards and in 2012, 16 winners split $350 million—is definitely being funneled into the ed-tech arena. An Education Week report card from earlier this year dives deep into successes and challenges for some of the grant winners.

5. Connections and More Connections: The Obama administration has been a big proponent of the “Connected Educator” movement, hoping to use the power of social media and the Internet to create informal digital support networks for teachers and other school personnel. Just last month the president hosted 100 tech-savvy superintendents at the White Housefor a summit on “Future Ready” schools and educators, an effort which builds upon the foundation of ConnectED. New Future Ready resources included a best-practices guide and a PD toolkit. The superintendents also signed a Future Ready pledge promising to help foster a digital district approach.

6. Bully Pulpit: If nothing else, Obama has used the White House to call attention to the role that technology can play in education. Earlier this month, Obama kicked off this year’s “Hour of Code” to introduce more students to computer programming. In June, Obama hosted the White House’s first-ever Maker Faire as part an emphasis on the that movement, which aims to push STEM skills, innovation, and plain old tinkering. The president seems to enjoy taking student devices out for a test drive, as he did in February when he borrowed a student’s iPad to record a video during a visit to Maryland’s Buck Lodge Middle School.

What’s Next? Overall, President Obama’s ed-tech efforts result in a net win. But it’s E-rate overall modernization that has the makings of history, said Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “The incredibly significant changes made and the dramatically increased investment going to school broadband will have a more lasting impact on students and schools than Race to the Top,...corporate commitments under ConnectEd, and Future Ready conferences,” he said. “It’s an incredibly big deal.”

Next year, Levin predicts ed tech will have a significant role to play within the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Krueger agrees, and also sees the modernization of the federalLifeline Program for Low-Income Consumers, which provides funding for phone services, on the horizon. Krueger predicts an update to the Lifeline program—akin to the E-rate revamp—that shifts the focus from phone service to broadband. “Poor families should have the option of choosing broadband for their homes, not just phone service,” he said. “That’s the next frontier of digital equity.”

What do you see coming up for ed tech in 2015?

Photo: President Barack Obama, center, instructs guests on how to sign a digital pledge on their electronic tablets as he hosts ‘ConnectEd to the Future’ at the White house in November. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.