IT Infrastructure

FCC Broadband Initiative Tackles School Needs

By Ian Quillen — October 25, 2011 5 min read
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A public-private effort announced last month by the Federal Communications Commission to increase broadband Internet access in underserved communities has the potential for a heavy impact on K-12 students, the initiative’s partners say.

Many of those contributing to “Connect to Compete”—which has two dozen private partners headlined by companies such as Microsoft, the Discovery Channel, and Best Buy—bring strong experience in educational outreach.

And although some educational technology advocates oppose the idea, the FCC may even explore funding some components of the initiative that tackle digital-literacy education with money from the $2.3 billion federal E-rate program. That program uses dollars from the Universal Service Fund, raised by a fee the FCC imposes on telecommunications companies, to subsidize school and library Internet-related purchases.

“We can tell that closing the digital-skills gap is going to be work that’s going to be largely based in schools and libraries,” said Alan Simpson, the vice president of policy for San Francisco-based Common Sense Media, which brings its experience as a children’s-media watchdog to the partnership.

“It’s hard to say exactly from this point how much we can grow all the components of this [initiative],” he continued. “It’s more about the kind of snowball effect that can build. How do we keep adding to it? That’s been one of the goals of public-private efforts in this space for quite some time.”

Project Partners

Several of the Federal Communications Commission’s partners in Connect to Compete are expected to have significant influence on the initiative’s effect on K-12 education. They include:

Best Buy
In the Minneapolis-based electronics retailer’s commitment to direct 20,000 of its Geek Squad employees to the cause of teaching digital literacy, the company is expected to utilize other initiative partners’ curricular resources created for K-12 students, teachers, and parents.

Boys & Girls Clubs of America
The Atlanta-based leaders of youth centers nationwide are expected to be key messengers about the program’s opportunities in the communities they serve.

CFY
The New York City-based educational technology nonprofit Computers for Youth will offer resources from its digital-learning program. The program, focused on middle schools, has offered technology access and training to teachers, students, and parents in underserved school systems.

Common Sense Media
This San Francisco-based watchdog group on children’s media is expected to contribute its digital-literacy curriculum and resources.

Discovery Education
The educational arm of the Discovery Channel, with headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., will contribute video content, digital lessons, and other curricular materials to initiative programs.

Microsoft Corp.
The Redmond, Wash.-based software company has committed to offer training in 15 states through schools and libraries on the use of its Microsoft Office software, which is a standard tool in many contemporary office jobs.

One Economy
This Washington-based nonprofit group devoted to connecting underserved communities to technology is expected to use its knowledge of those communities to direct other participants’ offerings to selected districts and schools.

Sesame Workshop
The nonprofit educational media organization, based in New York City, is expected to be another resource for content for initiative programs.

SOURCES: Federal Communications Commission; Education Week

Only a few details have emerged so far, but those point heavily toward a focus on students.

For example, the Minneapolis-based Best Buy is preparing to devote 20,000 of its Geek Squad technology staff to help launch digital-literacy training in 20 cities across the nation. It will likely do so with the help of groups such as Common Sense Media and New York City-based CFY. Both organizations have historically focused on educating students, parents, and teachers on effective technology use.

And Microsoft Corp., the Redmond, Wash.-based software company, will work with partners to offer training in its Microsoft Office software—which includes programs like Word, PowerPoint, and Excel—in 15 states during the next three years through institutions such as schools, libraries, and community colleges. Roughly a half-dozen states already offer certifications for high school students who have mastered the software suite, which is a common requirement for many jobs.

Further, the inclusion of a handful of grassroots community organizations, perhaps most notably the Atlanta-based Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which runs educational, athletic, art, and career programs for youths nationwide, are seen by Connect to Compete’s commercial partners as key players for achieving the goal of reaching children.

“They’re actually the ones who will be carrying the message on the ground,” Dan MacFetridge, the business-development director for Microsoft’s “Shape the Future” program, said of those groups. “We have found the best single way to build awareness is to get kids talking to each other on the playground.”

Mr. MacFetridge said Shape the Future, which will be used to fulfill Microsoft’s role in Connect to Compete, has offered educational services to 10 million students in other countries.

E-Rate Changes Eyed

Meanwhile, the FCC is at least considering the use of E-rate funding to forward one of the goals of the initiative, which is to create a national standard for digital-literacy training.

“We plan to launch a proceeding to explore how the E-rate program can expand access to digital-literacy training at more public libraries and schools across the country and, ultimately, forming a Digital Literacy Corps,” Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the FCC, said in prepared remarks at an event in Washington launching Connect to Compete.

The overview document from the FCC also says reforming the Universal Service Fund, which directs money to the E-rate and other programs, is a necessary step to achieve the initiative’s goals.

The E-rate—short for “education rate”—has undergone incremental changes since Mr. Genachowski became chairman in 2009. Those tweaks include the application of an index for inflation to the program, which had been funded at $2.25 billion annually since 1997, as well as the unveiling of pilot programs testing ways to expand the E-rate’s reach to mobile and wireless technologies.

But while advocates of educational technology have lauded the FCC’s willingness to innovate, they have also expressed hesitation at the notion that the E-rate would pay for a broader range of programs without a substantial increase in its overall funding.

“E-rate is dramatically oversubscribed, and there has been an unwillingness to raise the cap sufficiently to meet the demand around infrastructure,” said Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking. “To then expand it to a new resource around digital literacy, we think, is unsustainable.

“If the FCC wishes to look to other areas of the Universal Service Fund,” he said, “that would be something we would support. But we cannot support using E-rate funds for this purpose.”

Josh Gottheimer, the senior counselor to the FCC chairman, said that such concerns are premature, and that any substantial alterations to E-rate funding would be made with significant input from stakeholders in educational technology.

“We want to make sure we’re being innovative with the fund to keep up with the benefit and opportunities of technology, and at the same time not doing anything to destabilize it,” Mr. Gottheimer said.

‘Emerging Market’

Prudence aside, Connect to Compete may represent the widespread effort to reach disadvantaged students with technology that some technology advocates have been awaiting for years.

Ken Eisner, the vice president of policy and new business development at One Economy, a nonprofit organization focused on giving connectivity to underserved communities, and a partner in Connect to Compete, said such an alliance may be coming together now not because of a lack of desire in the past, but because of a favorable confluence of conditions.

For one, Mr. Eisner said, there is the leadership and vision represented in the FCC’s National Broadband Plan—which includes many of the goals espoused by Connect to Compete—as well as the National Education Technology Plan released by the U.S. Department of Education. (Both documents were published in early 2010.) Then, he said, there is the increasing popularity of private-public partnerships, as public organizations work to combat budget constraints and companies look for new sources of business during lean economic times.

“Microsoft has really not just been looking at this as a philanthropic endeavor, but as an emerging market,” Mr. Eisner said. “There are 100 million people that haven’t adopted broadband, and this is where their growth market can come from.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as FCC Broadband Initiative Tackles School Needs

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