Ed-Tech Policy

Gates, Zuckerberg Pour Money Into School Connectivity Plan

By Ben Kamisar — December 04, 2013 6 min read
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The push to bring high-speed Internet to more U.S. schools drew high-profile support Wednesday, as a nonprofit that promotes that mission announced that it has received grants from an Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s organization, Startup:Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other donors, worth a total of $9 million.

The recipient of those investments, EducationSuperHighway, will use the money to help train schools to use and manage broadband connections while cutting down on costs.

“When schools and teachers have access to reliable internet connections, students can discover new skills and ideas beyond the classroom,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, said in a release announcing the donation. “The future of our economy and society depend largely on the next generation using and building new online tools and services, and I’m glad to support EducationSuperHighway’s work.”

The San Francisco-based nonprofit seeks to improve access to high-speed broadband in schools across the country with a four-pronged approach: indentifying which schools need broadband improvements, providing districts with technical expertise, helping districts pay lower prices for connections, and pushing for changes to the federal E-rate program.

“This is an historic opportunity to solve this problem at a moment when we are really at a tipping point,” said Evan Marwell, the CEO of EducationSuperHighway. “We think it is going to really make a difference for America’s kids.”

Zuckerberg’s Startup:Education foundation is the tech giant’s foray into education philanthropy. Most recently, the organization lead a contribution of $4 million in seed funding for Panorama Education, the Cambridge, Mass.-based company which creates and analyzes surveys for K-12 schools.

Education SuperHighway received $3 million from Startup:Education, $2 million from the Gates foundation, as well as $4 million from others, some of whom wished to remain anonymous, said Marwell. (Education Week receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its coverage of the education marketplace and innovation in education. The newspaper retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.)

Currently, there is little centralized data that speaks to which schools have the greatest needs for high-speed connectivity, according to officials at EducationSuperhighway—so the organization has tried to pull together that information on its own. Since there is little centralized data to help the organization identify which schools need improvements, EducationSuperHighway developed its own internet speed tests. Based on information it has gathered through partnerships with 26 state departments of education, the organization’s research found that more than 70 percent of public schools lack the bandwidth required for digital learning.

Marwell said that the $9 million will mostly be used to help provide technical expertise and reduce the connection costs to America’s schools.

While the goal might be lofty, Marwell says that his group’s goals are attractive to tech-moguls like Zuckerberg and Gates because they are realistic.He estimates that 70,000 of the nation’s 100,000 schools need to be upgraded, a number he calls “manageable.”

“It’s achievable, we don’t have to invent any new technology, and there’s a funding source,” he said. “We are really at a tipping point...but the thing that is holding us back is the Internet infrastructure.”

Lindsey Tepe, a program associate in the education policy program at the New America Foundation, in Washington, said that the donation could be a smart way to allow schools to leverage the expertise of EducationSuperHighway into making smarter decisions about infrastructure.

“If done right, this could be a really great way to make the [E-rate] fund more efficient in its dispersement,” she said in an interview.

A National PlanWhile interest in 1-to-1 student-to-digital-device programs and other digital-learning efforts continues to grow, education technology experts estimate that 40 million students lack sufficient broadband access in their schools. In June, President Obama announced his ConnectED program, which aimed to expand high-speed broadband and wireless Internet to virtually all American students within five years. In announcing the plan, the administration said that the average school’s Internet connectivity matches that of a typical home, except schools have to provide access for hundreds of students and faculty.

“There are a lot of opportunities that are simply closed out to students and teachers that don’t have access to technology,” Richard Culatta, the director of the Department of Education’s office of education technology, said in an interview. “If you look at where the most engaging, interactive resources are for learning these days, they are not coming from a textbook—they are coming from digital resources.”

He added that third party groups like EducationSuperHighway that don’t stand to make a profit from the expansion of technology are an important piece in the modernization puzzle.

“It’s really important that we don’t look at this just as a technology initiative,” he said. “The technology is essential, but the reason we are putting the tech into place is that it is the foundation for redesigning learning in this country.”

Hedging on E-rate reform

Many organizations, including Marwell’s, argue that changing the E-rate program is a critical piece of any effort to address schools’ connectivity woes.

The federal program provides discounts for Internet services for schools and libraries and has contributed to more than 97 percent of U.S. classrooms today having web acess, according to the Federal Communication Commission, but many critics argue that the program is underfunded. While the program is capped at about $2.4 billion, schools and libraries request about twice that sum for improvement projects. The FCC, which manages the program, is currently mulling an expansion of the E-rate program, which would seek to fulfill many of the goals in the president’s ConnectEd proposal.

Many groups are pushing to double the E-rate’s funding to help match the demand. The program currently delineates between Priority 1 funding, which covers basic connections, and Priority 2 funding, which covers internal connections. Since requests for Priority 1 funding use up the vast majority of the available funds, most of the Priority 2 requests that could be used for internal routers and wireless hotspots remain unfunded.

Others, including Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, have argued that the program needs to do more with the money it has and suggest that incentives could be created to ensure that money is spent wisely.

Providing every school with high-speed broadband would become much more difficult without changes to the E-rate, Marwell argued.

“We’ll eventually get there,” Marwell said. “But itnstead of taking five years, [it] will take 10 to 15.”

Correction: The original post incorrectly reported donations made by Startup:Education and the Gates foundation. Education SuperHighway received $3 million from Startup:Education, $2 million from the Gates foundation, as well as $4 million from others, some of whom wished to remain anonymous. Panorama Education received $4 million in seed funding from Startup:Education, not from the Gates foundation.

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