Photo Credit Thinkstock

Photo Credit Thinkstock

American schools increasingly depend on digital technologies to expand learning opportunities, to individualize instruction and to graduate students with the skills necessary for success in college and the 21st century workplace. However, fewer than 30 percent of schools In the U.S. have high-speed internet access. This puts the United States at a disadvantage in the global economy. To address this problem, President Obama launched the ConnectED initiative in June 2013 with the goal of bringing broadband internet to 99 percent of the nation’s schools within five years.
E-rate program

Most schools in the United States are connected to the internet thanks to the FCC’s 1996 E-rate program, which provides discounts of up to 90 percent for school internet access. Districts with higher poverty rates receive the larger discounts. The Universal Service Fund (USF) finances the program. Wireless and wired telephone companies, paging services and some Voice over Internet Protocol Providers contribute a percent of their revenues to the fund. (While the USF fee is assessed on the telecommunications companies, many consumers may see a USF charge on the phone bill as companies attempt to pass on costs.) The ConnectED program is using the E-rate funds and investments committed by private industry to upgrade Internet service in schools across the country.

Many still only have basic connectivity

The E-rate program has successfully connected schools, yet nearly half the recipients of E-rate discounts report they are functioning with only basic connectivity. Lacking high-speed internet access, teachers and students are unable to utilize the newest technologies. Schools that have expanded their technology capabilities have reaped measurable rewards for their investment.

President Obama announced the launch of ConnectED at the Mooresville, North Carolina Middle School, a school that serves as a national model for what can be achieved by “going digital.” In 2008, the school began supplying its students and teachers with laptop computers. Math instruction became individualized as students could access math modules based on their skill level. Rather than delivering lectures at the head of the class, teachers may take on the role of advisor as students collaboratively gather information online. Lessons may be supplemented with multi-media presentations. Students and teachers have access to a common area online where they can share instructional materials, post lessons and submit assignments.

According to a New York Times report, since the program began, Mooresville’s graduation rate has risen from 80 percent to 91 percent; achievement in math, science and reading, as measured by the annual state assessments, has increased across all grade levels from 73 percent to 88 percent of students reaching or exceeding proficiency levels. The district was able to save money by eliminating costly computer labs — a standard in schools since the 1990s — and cutting expenditures on textbooks and reference materials.

Help from the private sector

The private sector has stepped up to the plate committing to over $750 million in services and equipment. In a February 2014 speech made at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Maryland, President Obama announced that AT&T, Sprint and Verizon have pledged a combined $300 million in cash and services to update Internet service in American classrooms. Apple, Autodesk, Microsoft and O’Reilly Media are outfitting schools with free, or deeply discounted, hardware, software, productivity tools and educational content.

All this new technology will require teachers trained in its use. To address this, the President, in his 2015 budget, is requesting $200 million for a ConnectEDucators program. ConnectEDucators will provide formula-based grants to assist schools in making the transition to digital learning and competitive grants to enhance professional development for teachers. Additionally, the FCC has modernized the E-rate program and improved its financial management of the program to free up an additional $2 billion dollars to meet school and library connectivity needs over the next two years.

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Gillian Burdett is a freelance writer covering all things home and living. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.

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