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.

John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer/AP
Eighth graders Sam Montgomery (l.) and Alexia Martin (r.) show President Obama their math projects as he hugs math teacher Felicia Dangerfield-Persky during a tour of Mooresville Middle School Thursday, in Mooresville, N.C. President Obama says he wants 99 percent of American students connected to super-fast Internet within five years.

Technology is changing education at lightning speed. But thousands of schools in the United States still don’t have lightning-speed Internet connections to take advantage of the plethora of digital learning tools.

That could change dramatically within the next five years, with 99 percent of American students connected to next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless through ConnectEd, an initiative President Obama proposed Thursday.

Mr. Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to improve the federal E-Rate program that subsidizes broadband and wireless connections in schools and libraries. The goal is to improve the infrastructure needed for connection speeds of at least 100 Mbps (megabits per second) – and moving toward 1 Gbps (gigabits per second).

"In a country where we expect free wifi with our coffee, why shouldn't we have it in our schools?" Obama said during a visit  Thursday to Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C.

Mooresville students in grades 3 to 12 are issued a laptop, and all teachers are trained to use digital tools and content. The policy has led to a change in the “culture of instruction – preparing students for their future,” said superintendent Mark Edwards in a statement distributed by the White House.

The district launched its new approach in 2009, and the graduation rate climbed from 80 percent in 2008 to 91 percent in 2011. Although the district ranks 100th in North Carolina on the amount it spends per student, it ranks third in test scores and second in graduation rates.

There is no need for Congressional action to modify E-Rate, one of several subsidy programs paid for by FCC fees for the Universal Service Fund. The FCC could pursue the changes on its own, but would need to find savings or additional revenue. One way to raise the money would be a temporary yearly surcharge of less than $5 on Americans’ phone bills, administration officials said. Generally there is a public comment period before such changes are implemented.

“Over the past few years, schools have been relying on broadband more and more, they’ve been ditching textbooks … shifting to digital assessments and online learning … and more schools are going 1 to 1” in the ratio of computing devices to students, says Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) in Washington. “That’s putting more and more strain on school networks,” he says, and the E-Rate program has not been keeping pace with demand.

An FCC survey in 2010 found that 80 percent of teachers in E-Rate funded schools (which qualify for help based on the level of student poverty) said their broadband connections were not meeting current needs. And at-home broadband connectivity stalled at about 65 percent, according to a 2012 report by SETDA. Mr. Levin says he is heartened that the president and the FCC have endorsed many of the recommendations put forward in that report.

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.

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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