Policy & Funding Issues

Ed Tech at the Crossroads

Education technology policy and advocacy groups have a lot to deal with these days. There's the new proposal to expand the federal E-Rate program. There are the National Broadband Plan and the new National Educational Technology Plan, both of which are on the verge of being revealed. And there's EETT, the sole source of funding specifically earmarked for educational technology, which is currently in danger of zero-funding.

All of these issues are coming to a head as the Consortium or School Networking (CoSN) prepares for its annual conference on education technology policy and leadership, CoSN Conference 2010, which will be held Feb. 28 to March 3 in Washington, DC. CoSN is an influential education technology group that has been an outspoken advocate for federal funding and policies supporting K-12 education initiatives. THE Journal had a chance to catch up with CoSN's CEO, Keith Krueger, to get a preview of how these issues will be addressed at this year's show. Here Krueger shares his views on the proposed E-Rate 2.0 plan, which was introduced last week moments before Congress adjourned owing to weather problems; the elimination or consolidation of EETT proposed in President Obama's 2011 budget; the National Broadband Plan, which the FCC is expected to reveal in mid-March; and potential hurdles for innovation in education.

David Nagel: We've written a bit about the proposed consolidation of EETT and your organization's reaction. Could you explain why you think consolidation is the wrong move?

Keith Krueger: I think that while we conceptually agree that technology should be embedded in everything that is happening with funding and policy, we're concerned that, unless there's specific support for technology leadership and professional development, we will lose momentum.

I think the administration has the right vision, and that is that technology needs to be embedded in everything we do. We would go one step further and say it also requires dedicated funding to make sure that there is that technology leadership piece in place.

Nagel: Are you going to be talking about this during your sessions at the show?

Krueger: Karen Cator, the new director of the Office of Educational Technology [at the United States Department of Education], will be presenting the new national ed tech plan. Steve Midgley [the FCC's director of education] will be there presenting the broadband plan. And Jim Shelton [ED's assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement] will be part of the closing plenary talking about innovation.

So there will certainly be speakers who will have the latest information on how the Obama administration is viewing the future of technology. And also Aneesh Chopra, the White House chief technology officer, will be speaking at our CTO event about e-government. So there will be a number of perspectives from the administration.

We'll also be preparing about 150 technology advocates to go up to the Hill on Wednesday, [March 3]. With that we'll be working in partnership with [the State Educational Technology Directors Association, the International Society for Technology in Education, and the Software and Information Industry Association].

The focus of CoSN is always on policy and leadership in order to systemically use technology to improve teaching and learning. And so the entire conference will be looking at how do we move beyond these islands of innovation to really a system of innovation. So innovation is the theme of everything we're doing at this year's conference.

Nagel: As you mentioned, innovation is a major theme in the upcoming CoSN conference. What do you think are some of the issues coming up that could impact schools' abilities to innovate? And by that I mean positive or negative.

Krueger: When you come at a topic like innovation, you have to say, "Innovation for what? What are we trying to do?" I think we have to start educationally: How do we create a learning environment that addresses the needs of students today, gives them the skills they need, and individualizes that experience so that each kid is moved along their path as fast as they can learn something?

So how do we embed that with[in] the entire institution of schooling and make sure that it's not dependent on just an individual leader, an individual teacher, an individual school? But how do we actually make a model school district? How do we scale these systems up?

[Regarding] the challenge around innovation, we're going to be looking at questions like why is it so hard for the education system to change? What is it that keeps us from moving? What are the things that are most likely to affect important change? What are the pressure points? I think that that's a really important conversation to be having.

Nagel: What do you think some of those answers are?

Krueger: Well, the reason we've brought in [Doblin's] Larry Keeley [as a speaker at the upcoming CoSN event] is he starts with an interesting perspective on innovation across many industry sectors.

So first of all, we want to know, how have other sectors really come about their innovation strategies? And then what's unique about the K-12 system? What is it that we can learn from other industry sectors? And why is it that this has been an industry sector that has been slower to adapt to innovation?

Virtually every other industry sector has, over the last 20 years, had massive transformation. And while we've seen some change in schools, in general ... we haven't seen that technology has had the impact that it has in lots of other industry sectors.

Nagel: I'd like to move on to the topic of E-Rate and also the national broadband plan. Both of those are coming up. You've seen E-Rate 2.0, which was just introduced yesterday [as of this interview]. What are your initial thoughts on that, and what kind of chance does it have?

Krueger: It literally just went in yesterday [the day before this interview took place], and we haven't had a lot of time, but there are some things that we think are very, very good about it--and some things that we don't know quite enough about yet.

First of all, the bill would require the FCC to complete a proceeding within six months of being enacted to revise the cap in accordance with inflation. That we definitely support.

It also does various administrative modifications to the program that we've all supported, like a multi-year application for Priority One services, to submit applications for non-recurring services once every three years.... Some of these things are just good simplifications that will really help us.

The bill also creates three new programs, one of which is a home access program; one is a discount for community college and head start programs; and one is the e-book program, which I what I think you were asking about.

Nagel: I'm interested in all of them.

Krueger: I think ... we're still trying to understand that. Two of the programs would take money out of E-Rate for new applicants and new services.

The first one would be the home access one, which would be a pilot $500 million [per year] program for five years that would provide Title I secondary students who have computers with vouchers to defray monthly service fees for residential broadband services. It appears to flow through Congressional appropriations and not through E-Rate, but we're still trying to get clarification.

The second program is discounts for community college and head start programs, creating a pilot program that would allow community colleges and head start programs to receive ... broadband equipment and services through a grant program to be prioritized based on demonstration of need, maximum potential of broadband use consistent with their education mission, and innovation with respect to use of broadband, Web-based information, and Web-based applications. But it's basically no more than $150 million per year, and, for the first five years, funds would flow from the federal government. So we think that's an appropriation or grant, not necessarily E-Rate money.

Then there's the e-book program, the third program, that would establish a four-year e-book pilot, costing $50 million per year. The program could be extended by the [FCC] alone. Only secondary [institutions] could apply for the program, which would provide meaningful discounts on services and technologies for the use of electronic books. Again, I think we have a lot of questions about this. I'm not really sure yet about it, nor have we taken a position on it. The bill would require schools to certify that electronic book services and technologies are incorporated into course curricula and that implementation is on a technology-neutral basis.

Nagel: And both of those things seem fairly vague.

Krueger: Yeah, we're not really sure what that means. I suspect what it's intended to say is that school districts can choose whether it's a Kindle or an e-reader ...

Nagel: Or an iPad ...

Krueger: Or something else. If people buy an e-book and read it on a laptop--if you buy an e-book in PDF form and it's readable on your laptop--could you pay for your laptop? [That normally] isn't covered under E-Rate.

Nagel: I see.

Krueger: Those are the kinds of questions that I think aren't very clear.

Nagel: That's actually a fairly big question.

Krueger: Right. [The bill would also] require the FCC to prepare and submit to Congress a report assessing the project, including its impact on digital literacy and overall learning. And we think this $50 million a year program would be paid through E-Rate.

Nagel: Could you explain for the readers the distinction between federal appropriation and funding through E-Rate?

Krueger: The E-Rate is funded through when you pay your telephone bill. There [are] charges that are called Universal Service. This is a program that's existed for over 50 years. It was initially created to subsidize rural telephone service. It was, in 1995, extended under the Telecommunications Act [enacted in 1996]. As they deregulated the telecommunications industry, they extended Universal Service to schools and libraries. And so $2.25 billion a year goes in to pay for Internet access, telecommunications, and internal connections for schools and libraries

Nagel: The national broadband plan: That's coming up in March.

Krueger: Well, we haven't seen it. There's been a lot of input. I suspect the education part of it will be part of a national broadband plan. They've been working at it for a long time, a number of months, and we're anxious to see it. Steve Midgley, who has been writing the education section, will be at our conference. He did give us a little preview of it. And I think, from what he was able to say, it looks helpful in being clear about the importance of what they call anchor institutions--schools and libraries--in providing broadband. Obviously the E-Rate has brought us a long way to having some connectivity, but very few of the connections schools have are broadband. And so, as we get more and more into video and other data applications that require a lot of bandwidth, we really do need to have an investment in true broadband.

We've been somewhat hampered under the current E-Rate in that the U.S. Department of Education has a very low level of connectivity defined as broadband, T1 or better.

Nagel: But in terms of the timing of E-Rate 2.0, did that strike you at all as far as the national broadband plan is concerned?

Krueger: Well I think it is getting ready for that. I think that the interesting thing is that the national education technology plan and the broadband plan are sort of coming out simultaneously as vision statements about overall education technology and what broadband means to that. And so those are being coordinated between the FCC and the U.S. Department of Education.

I suspect that people on the Hill like Sen. [John D.] Rockefeller [who supported an inflation adjustment for the E-Rate cap] are trying to make sure that just before that broadband plan comes out they have ... a stake in the ground ... and that is to raise the cap on the E-Rate. It needs to happen. We haven't had an adjustment for inflation since it was created, and that means we've lost real dollars.

Discussion of these and other issues will be held at the CoSN Conference 2010 Feb. 28 to March 3 in Washington, DC. Further information about this event can be found here.

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