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Obama wants faster Internet in US schools. Would you pay $5 a year for it?

'We expect free wifi with our coffee, why shouldn't we have it in our schools?' Obama said in pressing for an initiative to urgently upgrade Internet connections at US schools.

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The ConnectEd initiative would also address digital divides. It would build on programs that have already begun improving technology infrastructure in underserved rural areas, for instance. It would encourage private companies to compete to provide more affordable devices and educational software. And it would use existing funds in the US Department of Education to help teachers take advantage of digital technology.

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That’s an important step, Levin says, because “professional development on how to use technology well has always been a very high priority for teachers. It’s something they struggle with.”

Teachers of the lowest-income students were more than twice as likely as teachers of the highest-income students to say that lack of digital access was a major challenge to incorporating digital tools into their teaching, according to a 2012 survey of middle school and high school teachers by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

That same survey found that for more than two-thirds of teachers, the Internet already had a major impact on their ability to collaborate with other teachers, interact with parents, and access important materials for their teaching.

About 6 in 10 of the teachers in the Pew survey (which polled a sample of more than 2,000 teachers involved in Advanced Placement or the National Writing Project) said their schools did a good job of supporting teachers’ efforts to use digital tools in the classroom. But that was weighted toward teachers in high-income schools, with only 50 percent of those in low-income schools saying they got good support.

Students need access to digital tools in order to master the skills that will be demanded of them in the workplace, many education experts say. And the new assessments being developed to go along with Common Core State Standards will be largely computer based.

The Obama administration also sees educational technology as a matter of global competitiveness, citing countries such as South Korea, where schools all have high-speed connections and textbooks are being phased out by 2016, according to a White House fact sheet.

The Cajon Valley Union School District in California, where 80 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, has turned students into creators, rather than just consumers, of digital media. Students use their digital devices to post writing or video assignments and get instant feedback from teachers and peers, and they create digital presentations on character traits the schools promote.

“They are very motivated by technology,” a Cajon Valley teacher says in a Youtube video about the transformation, which has correlated with dramatic improvements in test scores and student behavior.

The E-Rate program is not without its critics. In 2005, for instance, a Government Accountability Office report found weaknesses in FCC’s oversight of the program to protect it from fraud and waste. It did not properly track how well E-Rate was directly tied to schools improving their connectivity, for instance. But in the intervening years “there were changes to shore up internal controls, and it’s much stronger,” Levin says.

Similar support for school technology has been proposed on Capitol Hill – the Transforming Education through Technology Act by Rep. George Miller (D) of Calif., for instance. But unilateral action by the FCC is likely to happen more quickly than action in a highly divided Congress.


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