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President Obama Reveals Initiative To Connect 99 Percent of Students to High-Speed Broadband Within 5 Years

President Barack Obama has announced the ConnectED initiative to build high-speed digital connections to the country's schools and libraries. The initiative aims to connect 99 percent of students to high-speed Internet within five years.

In a speech in Mooresville, NC, the President pointed out that the average American school has about the same bandwidth as the average American home, but that bandwidth is shared between hundreds of students. And only 20 percent of students in the United States currently have access to high-speed Internet in the classroom, compared to 100 percent of students in South Korea. "In a country where we expect free WiFi with our coffee, why shouldn't we have it in our schools," said President Obama in his speech.

Mooresville Graded School District, where the President spoke, provides every grade 3–12 student in the district with a laptop and high-speed wireless Internet in the classroom. Last year it ranked in the bottom 10 of 115 North Carolina school districts for the amount of money spent per student, but ranked second from the top in student achievement. "So you're spending less money getting better outcomes," said the President. The goal of the ConnectED initiative is to help replicate Mooresville's success across the country and level the playing field for students in rural communities and other areas lacking high-speed Internet.

The ConnectED initiative aims to:

  • Connect 99 percent of students with next-generation broadband, at speeds of at least 100 Mbps and ideally 1 Gbps and provide high-speed wireless in schools and libraries within five years;
  • Provide educators with support and training in using educational technology to improve student learning;
  • Foster development of new resources for teachers, such as interactive demonstrations, lessons from world-renowned experts, and the opportunity to build online communities for collaboration with teachers across the country and the world;
  • Encourage technology companies to develop feature-rich educational devices that are price-competitive with basic textbooks;
  • Create an environment where students can work at their own speed, receive additional help if required, and access courses not otherwise available in their local school district;
  • Encourage development of education software and mobile apps that provide content aligned with college- and career-ready standards; and
  • Produce graduates with the 21st century skills they will need to succeed in the workplace.

A recent survey of nearly 750 middle and high school principals conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) highlighted the need for improved high-speed Internet and wireless access in schools. Three-quarters of the survey respondents strongly agreed that "improved broadband access in their schools would allow students to engage in more powerful learning activities"; six in 10 principals said "their teachers are prepared to maximize the use of expanded broadband in instruction."

“Broadband access affects students’ abilities to engage in technology-rich learning activities and acquire essential skills,” said NASSP Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti, in a prepared statement. “The president’s ConnectED initiative will help level the playing field so that all students have access to the same Internet speeds."

To fund the initiative, the President called on the Federal Communications Commission to update and use the existing E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries pay for Internet access. He also called on the Department of Education to work with states and school districts to strategically invest existing funding in professional development opportunities to help educators make the most of technology in the classroom. He said expects technology and software development for the initiative to come from private-sector innovation.

Although the NASSP and other educational organizations have applauded the announcement, they have also pointed out the need for increased funding of the E-rate program to pay for the high-speed Internet and wireless access.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) CEO Brian Lewis called the announcement a "huge step forward and a big win for students and educators everywhere." However, in a news release from ISTE, Lewis encouraged the President to take the initiative a step further by substantially increasing E-rate's annual funding cap, "where demand exceeds funding by more than $2.5 billion a year," said Lewis.

“Requests for assistance by high need schools and libraries are more than double the current resources in the E-rate program,” said Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), in a prepared statement.

“We have long advocated the need to equip classrooms with greater bandwidth and provide E-Rate with additional funding," said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), in a prepared statement. "The bold vision put forth by the President can be realized by adding just a few pennies per month to our phone bills and is an investment that will create a 21st century learning environment. This is an investment that we cannot afford not to make.”

Despite concern about E-Rate funding, however, NASSP, ISTE, NSBA, CoSN, and other educational organizations are enthusiastic about the ConnectED initiative.

“In today’s ultra-fast, super-competitive global economy, all students and teachers need to be up to speed and connected to the information superhighway. Currently, however, far too many are stuck in proverbial traffic jams or idling at on-ramps because they lack access to high-speed internet connections," said Bob Wise, president for the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, in a prepared statement. “With today’s announcement, President Obama makes it possible for every school to build on the ‘Mooresville momentum’ and ensures that all students are on the same track, moving at the fastest possible speed, and heading toward higher standards and better learning outcomes.”

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at [email protected].