Last week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved some long-overdue changes to the E-Rate program. For those of you not familiar with E-Rate, the program, enacted in 1996 under the name “Schools and Libraries Program”, subsidizes broadband and computer equipment for the K-12 vertical and libraries across America. The program emphasized connecting low-income and rural communities and it has been successful. Today over 97% of schools in the country have Internet access, compared to about 10% prior to the inception of the plan.
However, 1996 was a long time ago — in the last 18 years things have changed in technology and now it’s time to evolve E-Rate. The program works by allocating certain amounts of budget to the various technologies that schools use. Put on your thinking cap and try and remember what we spent money on in tech in 1996. There’s currently a fair amount of funding in E-Rate dedicated to outdated technologies such as pagers and dial-up modems. In addition, high speed broadband was expensive then, so that’s another area that’s over-funded. Underfunded areas include the technologies used to build networks inside the schools, particularly WiFi. This was the basis of E-Rate reform.
Last Friday, July 11th, the FCC approved plans to add $5 billion in funding for WiFi over the next five years — starting in 2015 — on top of the current $2.4 billion budget. The $2 billion over the first two years is guaranteed, then the funding for the final three years is based on savings from phasing out the legacy technologies.
While I applaud these changes by the FCC, I also think they are long, long overdue. The use of technology in US schools is way behind what can be found in other parts of the globe. I recently spoke at a K-12 conference in Minnesota and did a fair amount of research in this area and have some interesting data points regarding the state of networking within schools.
On the surface, it looks like US schools are well equipped, with 95% of them now having computers with Internet access. However, only 25% of schools have a network that could support 1:1 computing. Also, based on current bandwidth projections, less than 1% of schools have networks that will offer adequate performance in 2017. That means in a mere three years, 99% of our schools will have networks that are obsolete.
The 1:1 computing initiative is critical for the future of education. In a survey of educators, 95% agree that technology in the classroom improves a student’s ability to learn. Also, 85% agree that students are more engaged when using technology. Today, 4 states currently require online work to graduate, and this trend is just starting.
The technology vendors have come a long way in meeting the demands of K-12 as well. Today most of the tablet manufacturers offer “hardware as a service” models to offer some buying flexibility. Also, the introduction of Chromebooks into schools has given schools a low cost option for laptops. Chromebooks have been the fastest growing segment of the laptop industry, with much of the growth coming in the K-12 vertical.
From a software perspective, both Google and Apple have created stores specifically for education. In fact, Google’s Apps For Education (GAFE) is loaded with free and low cost applications that teachers can use to enhance the way a student learns.
One thing to understand is that the use of tablets and laptops isn’t just about digitizing paper stuff. While e-books have some value, if used correctly, educational material can shift from being static printed material to real time, up-to-date, personalized content that creates a richer, more interesting way to learn. With the pervasiveness of computers, tablets, and mobile devices, almost everything kids do on their own is a rich, interactive experience so why isn’t it the way they learn?
The missing ingredient in transforming the educational experience is the school network, which is why it was important for the FCC to evolve E-Rate. It’s the right thing to do at this time; let’s just hope it doesn’t take the FCC another 18 years to change the program again.