Broadband Plan Looks To Overhaul E-Rate, Promote Online Learning

In a presentation to stakeholders Wednesday, FCC Director of Education Steve Midgley provided a preview of the forthcoming National Broadband Plan, which will be formally released next week. The plan, as it pertains to education, calls for an expansion of E-Rate and new federal supports for the promotion and delivery of online learning.

The event, called "The Future for Educational Technology in K-12 Education Policy and Practice," was held by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) and sponsored by netTrekker and Learning.com. As of this writing, the complete presentation can be accessed online here.

Upgrading E-Rate
Much of Midgley's presentation focused on expanding and improving E-Rate, the FCC program administered by the Universal Service Administrative Co. that supports schools and libraries with discounts on telecommunications equipment. Under the draft principles of the plan Midgley presented today, E-Rate would take on a much broader role for schools.

Several of the proposed changes to E-Rate have, in fact, already been introduced to Congress in the form of the E-Rate 2.0 bill (H.R. 4619), which was introduced by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA)--lead House author of the original E-Rate legislation--last month. That bill included proposals to amend E-Rate by adding a five-year, $2.5 billion residential broadband voucher pilot program for students; a four-year, $200 million e-book pilot program; and refinements to program administration designed to ease the application process. It also proposed extending E-Rate to community colleges and to head start facilities and implementing adjustments for inflation.

Several aspects of the plan highlighted today overlap with these proposals, although the plan does not precisely mirror the Markey bill. (For example, unlike the Markey bill, there was no proposal for an e-book initiative mentioned in Midgley's presentation.)

Some specific proposals outlined in Wednesday's presentation included:

  • Adding flexibility for infrastructure development;
  • Setting minimum goals, to be reviewed periodically, for school and library connection speeds;
  • Awarding some funds competitively;
  • Expanding E-Rate to encompass community colleges; and
  • Increasing efficiency by simplifying the application process and allowing for multi-year renewals.
  • Extending the use of school networks to their surrounding communities during "off hours";
  • Supporting wireless connectivity at school and beyond school;
  • Making data collection more efficient; and
  • Supporting new pilot programs to "foster innovation."

Midgley did not get into specifics as to how off-hours use of school networks would work. But he did discuss, in general, the philosophy behind some of the proposed changes to E-Rate that are designed to address future scenarios.

"The concept is we can drive more innovation and better services into the E-Rate program by taking some of the funds and directing them towards the future," Midgley said. "We still need to fund the program as it exists, but ... the future does not look like today. And so the program of the future has to look different from the program today. And as with large bureaucracies, if you don't start that change early, you miss the target. So we have to do a little bit of target leading here with some of these programs."

He said that, under the plan, expanded wireless services would begin rolling out on campus and beyond through pilot programs, helping to extend learning "anytime, anywhere" as students access educational materials through their "school-managed" mobile devices in class and at home.

Supporting Online Learning
Beyond reforms to E-Rate, the National Broadband plan will also propose several initiatives to support online learning, including the development of technical/interoperability standards for government-generated multimedia elements, such as images from NASA, data from the United States Department of Energy, and other sources.

Such standards would, according to Midgley, "help provide a uniform platform across the country for all kinds of online learning systems to consume that content, reassemble it.... [W]e should be provisioning all kinds of resources from the National Archives, from Smithsonian, from NASA, from NSF, from the Department of Energy.... All of these resources are digital; they're available now but in proprietary, unique, one-off formats. If we can get a uniform format to publish all of those resources, we can change the game in terms of how digital learning occurs in the United States."

The plan also proposes a change to copyright law that would allow owners of textual and multimedia resources to make their materials available for educational use by marking such materials with a circled "e" symbol (ⓔ) instead of the current circled "c" (©). This would provide blanket permission for educational use of these materials, while publishers who did not want their materials used in this way would be able to continue using the standard copyright symbol. There was no discussion of what would constitute educational use.

Additional proposals from the National Broadband Plan that were previewed today included:

  • Promoting digital literacy through standards for digital skills;
  • Integrating digital literacy and STEM across the curriculum;
  • Increased funding for digital literacy and STEM;
  • Emphasizing open source software as a viable alternative to commercial software in all RFPs;
  • Funding research and development into online learning; and
  • Removing regulatory barriers to online learning, including teacher accreditation across state lines and course accreditation based more on mastery than on "seat time."

Midgley also discussed some administrative changes that will be proposed in the broadband plan, including a move to electronic student records, standards for financial data reporting, and a centralized RFP process to make information more readily available to technology vendors.

The formal National Broadband Plan is expected to be released to the public and presented to Congress March 17. Further information about today's preview presentation can be found here.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its original publication to correct possible inaccuracies. The portion of the National Broadband Plan draft outlined by Steve Midgley did not include an expansion of the types of services that will be covered under E-Rate, as previously indicated. Wording has also been changed to help clarify some of the differences between the E-Rate 2.0 legislation and the National Broadband Plan. [Last updated March 11, 2010 at 9:32 a.m.] --David Nagel

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .