IT Infrastructure & Management

‘Homework Gap,’ Privacy, and Budget Cuts Top Agenda of Ed-Tech Advocates

By Benjamin Herold — June 29, 2015 2 min read
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Fresh off a major victory in overhauling and expanding the federal E-rate program, proponents of educational technology are turning their attention to a trio of policy issues they say could threaten the spread of personalized digital learning.

Chief among them: expanding out-of-school access to high-speed broadband.

“The ‘homework gap’ is the cruelest part of our new digital divide,” said Democratic Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, speaking at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, being held here this week.

Rosenworcel cited research suggesting that 70 percent of teachers assign homework requiring online access, even though one-third of households do not subscribe to broadband.

Other concerns include a slew of federal and state bills related to student-data privacy, as well as a potentially significant reduction in ed-tech-related funding that could result from negotiations over the federal budget and reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“I think we’re looking at a real fight come September,” said Jon Bernstein, an ISTE lobbyist who spoke along with Rosenworcel at the conference.

The ed-tech community has reason for hope, however. Advocacy groups played a big role in the successful effort to increase by $1.5 billion the annual cap on the federal E-rate program, which helps subsidize telecommunications services and broadband for schools and libraries.

See: The E-rate Overhaul in 4 Easy Charts

Now, Rosenworcel said, the challenge is to move from improved connectivity in schools to expanded access at home.

The FCC earlier this month voted to invite public comments on a proposal that would restructure the federal ‘Lifeline’ program, which currently subsidizes phone service to low-income households. Under the proposal, recipients would have the choice to apply their subsidies to either phone or broadband service.

Expanded Wi-Fi is also important, Rosenworcel said, as would approval of a newly proposed federal competitive grant program that would seek to identify and expand “innovative broadband access programs that are popping up around the country.”

Putting wireless hotspots on school buses or allowing mobile hotspots to be checked out of public libraries can be “the difference between [a student] keeping up in class or falling behind,” Rosenworcel said.

A bill that would authorize the new grant program was introduced in the U.S. Senate last month.

Bernstein said he was hopeful the proposed legislation “will be turned into an amendment and added to the senate version of ESEA.” A companion bill could also be introduced in the U.S. House, he said.

(See complete coverage of the fight over ESEA reauthorization on the Politics K-12 blog.)

The lobbyist is fearful, however, that “pernicious” legislative approaches to protecting student-data privacy would also find their way into ESEA.

Bernstein specifically cited a recent proposal from U.S. Senator David Vitter (R., La.) that many ed-tech proponents believe would go way too far in curtailing the use of student learning data.

Budget cuts could also slow some of the momentum generated by the new investment in broadband infrastructure, he said. One example: potential cuts to Title 2 funds that support teacher professional development, including for technology.

“We need devices, professional development, and leadership in order to make use of E-rate,” Bernstein said.

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