The National Broadband Plan released recently by the Federal Communications Commission outlines a number of recommendations that could directly affect K-12 schools: revamping the federal E-rate program to offer more flexible use of the aid and streamline the application process; removing technological and policy barriers to online coursetaking; and improving the collection and transparency of educational data.
Ed-tech advocates welcomed those and other recommendations, but many are skeptical that the plan will be implemented anytime soon. The plan itself is a recommendation, not a mandate, and while some of the suggestions fall under the jurisdiction of the FCC, many require approval and cooperation from Congress, the executive branch, state and local governments, and the private for-profit and nonprofit sectors.
The plan would affect many aspects of the American economy and society, from education, health care, and the environment, to civic engagement and government performance, to homeland security and public safety.
“I think the plan is headed in the right direction, and am pleased to see that it is a priority of the [Obama] administration,” said Tammy Stephens, a member of the Broadband Knowledge Center of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, and the chief executive officer of the Stephens Group, a private consulting firm based in Long Beach, Calif. “However, I am skeptical that there will be enough sustained funding over time to reach their goals.”
The National Broadband Plan, written by the Federal Communications Commission, outlines various proposals that would directly affect K-12 education, including:
• Indexing for inflation the federal E-rate program’s cap on funding. The program has been capped at $2.25 billion a year since its creation in 1996. The change would not be retroactive.
• Exploring pilot programs that would evaluate using E-rate money for wireless connectivity to devices both on and off school campuses. Currently, E-rate aid may only be used to pay for connectivity to a campus itself.
• Allowing community use of school networks during off hours.
• Streamlining the E-rate application process by simplifying the procedures for basic projects and multiyear renewals instead of requiring all applications to go through the same process as large, complex projects.
• Rethinking copyright restrictions to facilitate the sharing of digital educational resources, and possibly creating a new license that would retain copyright restrictions except when the resource was used for educational purposes.
• Embedding digital literacy into all areas of the curriculum.
• Establishing a standard of data transparency, including district- and state-level financial data and information about how E-rate funding is used.
SOURCE: Federal Communications Commission
One of the biggest components of the National Broadband Plan for educators is a proposed overhaul of the federal education-rate program, known as the E-rate, which was established in 1996 to help expand Internet and telecommunications connectivity for schools and libraries. Since that time, funding for the program has remained capped at $2.25 billion a year, a level that ed-tech experts contend is inadequate.
The broadband plan proposes indexing the cap for inflation, although that change would not be retroactive.
Another limitation of the existing E-rate program, experts in the field say, is that its often-confusing rules and procedures complicate schools’ innovative technological efforts.
For example, under the current program, schools can use E-rate funds to provide Internet connections only to their campuses. That restriction rules out support for the kinds of anytime, anywhere learning that mobile devices such as laptop computers and cellphones can provide, and it raises questions about online courses students work on at home.
But that may change if the recommendations in the National Broadband Plan are adopted. The document, released March 16, suggests exploring pilot programs that support wireless connectivity to devices both on and off school cap uses for teachers and students.
Access to broadband, or high-speed Internet service, would provide schools the bandwidth they need to use multimedia applications such as video and audio, blogs, wikis, Web 2.0 tools, and other online technologies.
The plan would also allow off-hours use of school networks for community use.
However, some educators question an expansion of the program to include other uses.
“How are you going to broaden the eligible-services list when the program now is barely covering the [current eligible services]?” said Tom Rolfes, the education information-technology manager for the Nebraska Office of the Chief Information Officer and Nebraska Information Technology Commission.
“I would urge caution in broadening the eligible-services list until all [current] funding obligations are satisfied, which currently is not the case under the $2.25 billion ... funding cap,” he said.
‘Focus on Online Learning’
The document calls for improving efficiency in obtaining E-rate aid by simplifying applications for small projects and multiyear renewals instead of holding them to the same process as large, complex projects.
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In addition to changes to the E-rate program, the broadband plan aims to decrease the barriers to online learning by re-evaluating teacher and course certifications across state lines and measuring completion of online courses through student achievement, as opposed to so-called seat time.
“The plan makes strong educational recommendations with a focus on online learning for expanding access to high-quality courses and programs,” said Susan Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
The document also proposes rethinking copyright restrictions to facilitate the sharing of digital content, and proposes establishing a new license, separate from copyright or “creative commons,” that will allow materials to be published with all the restrictions of copyright except when the resource is being used for education.
Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md., believes the conversation that specific proposal will generate about copyright will be helpful for educators.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as National Broadband Plan Emphasizes E-Learning, Revisions to the E-Rate