President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to launch “the most sweeping effort ... this country has ever seen” to modernize school buildings and equip classrooms with computers as part of his economic-stimulus plan, prompting optimism among ed-tech advocates despite pervasive budget constraints.
Although the details have yet to be revealed, Obama has indicated that the economic-stimulus plan, which aims to create 3 million jobs—up from a target of 2.5 million in late November—includes money to put more computers in schools and provide both homes and schools with widespread broadband access.
“It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption,” Obama, who will take office Jan. 20, said in a December radio address. “Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online,” he said, going on to link broadband access to the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.
From the integral role that technology played in his campaign to indications that he will create a chief technology officer in the federal government for the first time, Obama has led many ed-tech experts to believe that the new administration will revolutionize the way technology is viewed and used in the United States, and, it is hoped, in K-12 education.
“I think Obama is the first president that’s making that switch to the Internet presidency,” says Jim Hirsch, the associate superintendent for academic and technology services for the 54,000-student Plano, Texas, school district.
Obama is doing for the Internet what President John F. Kennedy did for television, says Hirsch, by encouraging the use of it as a common and essential staple of American life.
Modeling Technology Use
There may be an ironic twist, though, to Obama’s current use of technology and his future role as president. The public is used to seeing him sending and receiving messages through his Blackberry, which is always close at hand. But because of the Presidential Records Act, which requires that all presidential correspondence be made part of the public record, Obama will most likely have to stop using the device to send and receive e-mail once he assumes the presidency.
Aside from any legislative or financial changes President-elect Obama may make in regards to ed tech, the way he models the use of technology as an infrastructural necessity in government might have a powerful effect on the way technology is viewed in schools, says Hirsch.
“When the federal government begins to model very positive models of collaborative technology, it’s only a matter of time before schools do the same,” he says.
Tracy Gray, the director of the Washington-based National Center for Technology Innovation, or NCTI, agrees.
“He really is the first president-elect to have harnessed the power of technology,” she says. “His campaign systematically used technology not as an ATM machine but as an effective vehicle to communicate and develop a sense of engagement of individuals across the country and across all age groups.”
Gray says President-elect Obama’s move to appoint a chief technology officer for the government demonstrates a shift in the way that technology is viewed nationally: “This is in fact recognizing the critical role that technology will play in America’s” quest to be more competitive in a global marketplace.
‘Most Important Priorities’
Donald G. Knezek, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, is energized by Obama’s victory and his plans to use technology as a tool for economic progress.
“We are celebrating the election of our first president who truly understands and embraces information and communication technology, connectivity and the power of the World Wide Web, and the democratization of information, knowledge, and 21st-century communications,” Knezek says. “The most important priorities for the U.S.—to regain a leadership role globally in education, to overcome the recent slippage among nations we’ve seen in almost every important statistic of international educational comparisons—are already on President-Elect Obama’s radar.”
The plan for education that Obama laid out on the campaign trail addresses American students’ relatively mediocre performance in science and math and asserts that “Barack Obama and Joe Biden will make math and science education a national priority, and provide our schools with the tools to educate 21st-century learners.”
To provide schools with the tools and resources they need to make American students competitive internationally in those subjects, technology needs to first be identified as “a minimum requirement for schools,” rather than “an add-on or nice-to-have,” says Kimberly A. Rice, the chief information officer for the 55,800-student Boston school district.
“Just like we have to have running water and electricity, we have to have that base-level access [to technology] in our schools,” she says.
One important step to achieving that is by providing affordable broadband access to schools and communities, says Rice, which is another area President-elect Obama detailed in his education plan.
Reforming the E-Rate
Keith R. Krueger, the executive director for the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or COSN, thinks that reforming the federal E-rate program, which has an annual budget of $2.25 billion, is a key step to achieving universal broadband access.
“Educators and students need to have [around-the-clock] access to [high-speed] broadband in order to make use of the myriad of online educational tools and services—everything from multimedia content to video-conferencing,” he says. “We think that the E-Rate, which has already played a major role in providing broadband access to schools and libraries nationwide, can be the tip of the spear here and that the Obama administration should look closely at raising the currently inadequate annual cap so that more can share its benefits.”
In addition to providing schools with the technological infrastructure to teach students 21st-century skills, President-elect Obama has also promised to bolster professional development for teachers. Ann L. Flynn, for one, hopes that he follows through.
“Without the right professional-development component, technology resources alone won’t be efficient,” says Flynn, the director of education technology at the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association.
To take full advantage of technological resources, teachers first need to be trained on how to use them, she says.
Despite Obama’s comfort level with technology and the comprehensive plan he set out during his campaign, Flynn does not expect ed tech to be the first major challenge he tackles, in light of the recent economic downturn and other pressing problems that emerged as top priorities during the presidential primaries and general-election campaigns.
“Education had a really tough time breaking through to be one of the top conversations in those campaigns,” she says, “but it’s got to be something that comes up early in his administration, because it is education that will determine the long-term position of this country.”