Technology has opened a new world of connectivity and resource accessibility. New digital technologies offer new ways to enhance lessons and improve student learning. However, lack of accessibility to these new technologies has contributed to an already prominent achievement gap between districts with sufficient resources to properly support quality programs and districts without these resources.
ConnectED is an initiative that was set forth by President Obama to bring all schools into the digital age and even the playing field for all American students. As a follow-up to last week’s post on the digital divide, I will be breaking down the ConnectED initiative and discussing what it could mean for the future of education.
The American school system has served the country’s students for many years with few changes. This system was built with a series of fundamental limitations in mind that have still allowed schools to adapt to new practices over time. New advancements in digital technologies have rendered many of these traditional limitations obsolete. Where the United States was initially able to lead the world in integrating these new educational technologies, aggressive investment by other countries in their digital programs threatens this competitive edge. In order to stay globally competitive and meet the demands of the 21st century, schools and their students need to be brought into the digital age.
On average, public schools and libraries have the same connectivity as the average American home despite serving 200 times as many people. The shortcomings of this level of connectivity are clear with only 20% of teachers claiming their school’s internet meets their needs (ConnectED, 2013). But it’s not just the technology; teachers are also lacking proper support and training to integrate new technologies into their classrooms effectively. When used correctly, technology can significantly enhance learning and will allow teachers to meet student needs more efficiently. Additionally, the skills students learn by engaging with this technology are becoming increasingly vital to their future success.
ConnectED is an initiative set forth by President Obama in order to address the growing need for digital technologies in public schools (and libraries). The plan will redirect current federal funds to begin the modernization process and calls communities, districts, schools, and private companies to action in order to support/enhance government efforts.
High-Speed Internet: Defined as connectivity with the ability to process at least 100 Mbps with the goal of most schools reaching 1 Gbps
Underserved Communities: Communities that fall significantly below the national average in their level of internet connectivity. This takes both public buildings and private residences into account.
Title II Funding: Refers to federal funding provided through Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Title II focuses on the preparation, training, and hiring of high-quality teachers and administrators.
Title VI Grants: Refers to federal grants provided through Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Title VI focuses on providing for standardized assessments and improving student achievement.
The ConnectED initiative is comprised of three major goals: “Connecting America’s Schools”,” Improving Teaching”, and “Unleashing Private-Sector Innovation”. Many schools face both physical and instructional challenges when integrating new technologies. School buildings either require installation of a functional broadband network or need to enhance their existing broadband to meet their needs. Additionally, teachers not previously trained to use and/or integrate educational technologies in their instruction must be trained to do so in order take full advantage of these tools. ConnectED tries to address both needs and calls upon other private entities to contribute to this massive effort.
Connecting America’s Schools
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been charged with the task of redistributing federal funds in order to provide access to high-speed internet connectivity for 99% of American students through by the year 2018. The FCC will work the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in order to efficiently install or enhance broadband capabilities in schools and libraries.
Where many students will benefit from this initiative, it will be most impactful in communities where students are lacking significant interaction with digital technologies. However, underserved communities, many in rural parts of the country, pose a significant challenge. In order to bring high-speed connectivity to these areas, ConnectED will build on the efforts of Universal Service Fund and Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and other organizations that specialize in brining service to these communities.
When used well, educational technology has the potential to significantly enhance instruction and improve student learning. The speed and ease at which teachers are now able to access student performance data helps them create more impactful lessons as well as meet the individual needs of struggling students. However, teachers need to receive training and support in order to properly integrate these new technologies into their classrooms.
In order to bring teachers and administrators the necessary support and training, the Department of Education will work with districts to help them find/develop professional development (PD) and training programs that would be most effective at preparing teachers for digital integration. Districts can pay for this support and training using Title II funding. For trainings (and equipment) to prepare for new, computer-based standardized assessments, districts can use Title VI grants.
Unleashing Private-Sector Innovation
The skills to use digital technologies effectively have become essential for economic success. The United States has been a leader in the development of educational technology, but is quickly losing its lead due to aggressive investment by other countries in the development of their own digital programs. In order to stay globally competitive, American students need to have access to high-speed broadband and the technology to use it.
ConnectED seeks to work with private companies and organizations to provide students with quality technological equipment and programs that will help them excel. Leading technology companies have the capacity to create products with a wide array of standard features that can be price-competitive with standard textbooks. ConnectED calls for the development of such products and encourages companies to work with school districts in order to deliver these devices to the students who need them. It is up to the individual district leaders to decide which technologies to purchase and ConnectED recommends that districts purchase equipment together in order to save money by buying in bulk.
Educational technology is a new economic field that the United States can take advantage of if companies act quickly. ConnectED would like to see new jobs created focusing on the development of educational programs and applications that push learning to the next level and that can be exported to the rest of the world. In order to inform schools which of these new programs will best match their goals and curricular needs, a new field of third-party consultants dedicated to keeping up with the latest developments can (and should) be created. These efforts will not only help schools, they will also provide more jobs and promote economic growth.
Food For Thought
Though the ConnectED initiative has a number of definitive goals, it might be better to see it as a tool for redefining educational improvement and influencing focus of educational policy. Functionally, this initiative does very little aside from providing broadband with most of its focus being on redirecting current funding and processes so that they better address the issue of integrating technology in the classroom. In fact, a larger part of this initiative is spent on encouraging cooperation from external entities in the education/technology field and unifying their efforts. Though ConnectED has not established any new organizations itself, many new organizations and efforts have been established in response.
Where the process of redefining the direction of education is particularly clear is through the funding structure ConnectED provides. ConnectED seeks to use federal funds that already exist under Titles II and VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to provide the tools, support, and training teachers need. What this means is that instead of adding additional training, old training opportunities are being revamped if not replaced by ones supported through this initiative. The decision to use Title II funding is particularly telling. Title II focuses on the preparation, training, and hiring of high-quality teachers. Since funds are being focused on training and preparing teachers, it makes sense for this to be the source of that funding. However, the unintended consequence of focusing this funding in such a way is that it begins to change what is defined as a high-quality teacher. If the majority of professional development and training (efforts meant to improve teacher quality) is to focus on digital use and integration, it goes to follow that ‘quality’ teachers are those who have mastered those skills. If the ability to integrate technology has become vital to accomplishing quality instruction, educational reform and policy will reflect this value.
Political redirection is not natural and making technology integration is not necessarily a bad thing. Many would agree that their schools are in need of greater technological capabilities in order to meet the new demands of a digitally connected world. What ConnectED has begun to do is bring together a framework that can later be used for more aggressive policies integrating educational technologies. If successful, the initiative could be the first step of a major shift in education.
ConnectED Initiative: The White House documentation
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Federal education policy