Federal Ed Tech Leaders Update Districts on Connectivity Initiatives

In a panel discussion at the ISTE conference, the Department of Education's Richard Culatta and his colleagues touted new E-rate funding, the ConnectED and Future Ready initiatives, and a new National Educational Technology Plan.

Richard Culatta, the director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education, remembers an eye-opening experience from a visit to a school in South Carolina. He was talking up the value of digital literacy and using the Internet in class to access new resources when one teacher raised her hand. “Did you ever drink peanut butter from a straw? That is what the Internet is like in my building,” she said.

“That stopped the whole conversation,” Culatta recalled. It doesn’t matter how many great resources there are if the connectivity is too slow.”

Speaking on a well-attended panel discussion at the annual ISTE Conference in Philadelphia last week, Culatta said there are important changes in the works at the federal level to help schools and teachers meet students’ technology needs. One important change has been a definitional shift: Wired schools have WiFi in classrooms, not just Internet access to the school. That shift is being supported by $2 billion in federal E-rate funding to connect classrooms to WiFi over the next two years, with $1.5 billion already requested. “Now we are at a point where we need to be ready so that those tools are ready to transform learning, and not just scanned versions of textbooks in PDF format,” Culatta said.

When it announced the new E-rate funding last year, the Federal Communications Commission noted that it represented a doubling of investment in broadband and would connect 20 million students in at least 15,000 schools to high-speed Internet access.

At the ISTE meeting, Colin Rogister, who is on assignment to the White House’s National Economic Council from the U.S. Department of Education, gave an update on the ConnectED initiative, which was launched two years ago to ensure all students have the tools they need to compete. Calling the program a “precocious 2-year-old,” Rogister said that on June 25 the White House released a new fact sheet on ConnectEd’s progress.

The fact sheet noted that the FCC’s E-rate program was awarding $161 million to more than 10,000 schools and 500 libraries across America. “This will bring the total to $470 million that the E-rate program has committed in just the last six weeks to advance and improve access to broadband connectivity and WiFi access this year — part of the over $8 billion in funding the FCC has made available to meet the President’s connectivity goal,” the fact sheet stated.

Rogister also mentioned the private-sector commitments of more than $2 billion of software, hardware, wireless connectivity and training resources that have been deployed. “This is about removing any barriers you have in the classroom,” Rogister said, “not just for the wealthiest districts, but for every district and every school. We encourage you to use the commitments for your situation. There are millions of dollars still in value out there.”

Speaking on the same panel in Philadelphia, Joseph South, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology, mentioned that the department is updating its National Educational Technology Plan. “We got great reviews on the first plan launched in 2010,” he said. “It set a vision for the states. It is an exciting thing we are updating that plan.” He said that the new plan, expected to be available this fall, would have a renewed focus on equity. Previously when the plan talked about equity, the focus was on students with disabilities, he said, “but that is not the whole equity picture.” There will be examples and best practices of personalized learning and improving connectivity to the home and community, he said.

When the department asked for feedback on the initial National Educational Technology Plan, school district officials said they needed more research-based best practices and site visits. “They need to see things in action and hear inspiring stories,” South said. To implement that vision, a new feature of tech.ed.gov, he said, is a “story engine” that lets users browse stories of innovation happening in schools across the nation. Educators who are interested in reviewing an early version of the new national technology plan can send an e-mail request to [email protected].
One success story South cited involved the school district in rural Coachella, CA. To provide connectivity to students when they are out of school, the district has outfitted school buses as mobile hotspots. The buses are parked overnight at sites throughout the community such as trailer parks. The buses provide WiFi access to students with limited home connectivity so that they can work on their assignments.

An audience member asked whether E-rate was likely to become a political football between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. South said this might be a rare case where both parties are supportive. To bolster that support, he suggested that school districts fully take advantage of the financial commitment that has been made. “When you show massive demand, everyone perks up,” he said.

ISTE’s Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist, Jon Bernstein, suggested that school districts invite their senators and representatives to the schools. “They have to see this stuff in action,” he said. “Show them what it means.”

The federal educational technology leaders also discussed the Future Ready program, in which more than 1,900 superintendents have committed to help transform their districts’ teaching and learning for the digital age. (They noted that there are 14,000 districts in the country, so there is definitely room for more commitments.)

The moderator of the panel, Mary Wegner, superintendent of the Sitka School District in Alaska, said, “One of the things I like about Future Ready is the ability to share our voices. We already network quite a bit in Alaska,” she said, “but this opens up the network to a whole new world of superintendents I can learn from.”

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.