What the FCC’s E-Rate Proposal Means for the Future of Education

Without federal intervention, the best educational technology could be available only to the wealthiest students.

Jeff Livingston is a senior vice president of education policy at McGraw-Hill Education. 
National Journal
July 8, 2014, 8:44 a.m.

Last month, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion took a sig­ni­fic­ant step to­ward ad­dress­ing one of the greatest im­per­at­ives in edu­ca­tion today: en­sur­ing that every stu­dent has ac­cess to re­li­able broad­band In­ter­net and the learn­ing op­por­tun­it­ies it can provide.

FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er’s pro­posed E-Rate Mod­ern­iz­a­tion Or­der would up­date the 18-year-old E-Rate pro­gram, the fed­er­al ini­ti­at­ive that provides dis­coun­ted tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions and In­ter­net ac­cess for schools and lib­rar­ies in the United States. Wheel­er’s pro­pos­al would real­loc­ate at least $1 bil­lion to­ward equip­ping the na­tion’s schools with high-ca­pa­city wire­less broad­band in the next year alone. It would en­sure im­proved ac­cess to the most ef­fect­ive edu­ca­tion tech­no­logy avail­able to stu­dents today, and it would lay the ground­work for a rad­ic­ally im­proved edu­ca­tion in­fra­struc­ture for to­mor­row.

I ap­plaud Chair­man Wheel­er’s bold stance on this vi­tal is­sue. Un­for­tu­nately, not every­one agrees. The pro­pos­al has come un­der fire, largely for a per­ceived lack of scope, and has sparked a con­sid­er­able de­bate. The plan will be put to a vote this Fri­day, and its fu­ture is un­cer­tain.

I’m a real­ist. Nat­ur­ally, Chair­man Wheel­er’s pro­pos­al has room for im­prove­ment — but it is an ex­cel­lent start. And we des­per­ately need to get star­ted, be­cause uni­ver­sal ac­cess to broad­band is not just an end un­to it­self. Uni­ver­sal broad­band is an un­deni­able pre­requis­ite to ac­cess­ing all mod­ern ed-tech tools — tools that, in­cid­ent­ally, hap­pen to be of the most cru­cial im­port­ance to pre­cisely the stu­dents who do not yet have ac­cess to broad­band.

What’s so im­port­ant about ed-tech? Even today, out­dated ideas about ed-tech pre­vail. Too of­ten, those who aren’t as fa­mil­i­ar with today’s more soph­ist­ic­ated tools as­sume that ed-tech is all about re­pla­cing tra­di­tion­al text­books with e-books, or us­ing edu­ca­tion­al You­Tube videos in class.

While that might have been the whole pic­ture a few years ago, today’s di­git­al classroom is sig­ni­fic­antly more dy­nam­ic. Where yes­ter­day’s ed-tech was primar­ily con­cerned with one-way in­form­a­tion de­liv­ery, today’s best di­git­al tools all aim to es­tab­lish a more con­tinu­ous, two-way flow of in­form­a­tion, and to de­liv­er highly per­son­al­ized learn­ing ex­per­i­ences for each in­di­vidu­al stu­dent — think real-time, one-to-one classroom man­age­ment sys­tems, or di­git­ally per­son­al­ized and ad­apt­ive-learn­ing tu­tors. These are tools that Mc­Graw-Hill Edu­ca­tion’s re­search has shown cap­able of im­prov­ing stu­dent per­form­ance and concept re­ten­tion, to de­liv­er mean­ing­ful and ac­tion­able in­sights to teach­ers, and to raise the qual­ity of in­struc­tion across the board.

I’ve been par­tic­u­larly im­pressed with the ex­tent to which ed-tech has been shown to aid strug­gling or at-risk stu­dents. Mod­ern tools have the power to drive meas­ur­able im­prove­ments in at-risk stu­dent pop­u­la­tions, to lessen the ad­min­is­trat­ive re­spons­ib­il­it­ies of over­burdened teach­ers, and, in some cases, to change the course of stu­dents’ lives for years to come.

And the best is still ahead of us. We’re quickly ap­proach­ing the day when our di­git­al tools will have the power to identi­fy pre­cisely where a stu­dent’s mis­un­der­stand­ing of ma­ter­i­al might lie, and to de­liv­er a cus­tom­ized, achiev­able solu­tion that can open up a world of un­der­stand­ing for that stu­dent. It’s an in­cred­ibly ex­cit­ing time to be in­volved in edu­ca­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, these tools are not ex­empt from the eco­nom­ic and tech­no­lo­gic­al real­it­ies that con­front schools na­tion­wide. That’s not to say that ed-tech de­velopers don’t de­vote con­sid­er­able ef­fort to­ward mak­ing their solu­tions as uni­ver­sally ac­cess­ible as pos­sible. In my role at Mc­Graw-Hill Edu­ca­tion, I’ve seen them work to sim­pli­fy in­ter­faces, lim­it­ing the need for ex­tens­ive tech­no­logy-spe­cif­ic teach­er train­ing. Hop­ing to spare schools the ex­pense of reg­u­larly pur­chas­ing new devices, they of­ten design soft­ware to run across mul­tiple com­puter plat­forms.

Still, there are some areas in which de­velopers’ hands are largely tied. Soph­ist­ic­ated ed-tech tools will al­ways re­quire cer­tain amounts of band­width in or­der to run prop­erly. The mod­ern devices on which they op­er­ate also gen­er­ally re­quire ac­cess to a re­li­able wire­less net­work. The simple real­ity is that most of the very best tools will re­quire ac­cess to a mod­ern broad­band wire­less In­ter­net con­nec­tion for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

As it stands, al­most a quarter of schools na­tion­wide do not have the band­width to meet even their cur­rent needs, much less what’s needed to make use of more ad­vanced ed-tech, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 sur­vey con­duc­ted by the Con­sor­ti­um for School Net­work­ing. An even lar­ger share of in­sti­tu­tions — more than 42 per­cent of the na­tion’s ele­ment­ary schools — lack school-wide wire­less con­nectiv­ity.

Put an­oth­er way: We live in a na­tion where well more than one-third of schools are un­able to provide their stu­dents with the best tech­no­logy, simply be­cause of net­work con­straints. Shouldn’t that be reas­on enough to over­haul our in­fra­struc­ture?

In fact, there might be an even more com­pel­ling reas­on.

The schools that cur­rently lack broad­band ac­cess are not a ran­dom se­lec­tion. They’re usu­ally schools op­er­at­ing with crit­ic­ally, of­ten chron­ic­ally, strained over­all budgets. They are gen­er­ally schools loc­ated in un­der­served, low-in­come com­munit­ies home to a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of stu­dents who as a res­ult are at risk of fail­ing or drop­ping out. Without an E-Rate in­ter­ven­tion such as Chair­man Wheel­er’s, we run the risk of de­liv­er­ing the best ed-tech to only the very wealth­i­est stu­dents, and of deny­ing it to those who likely need it the most.

Fur­ther, be­lieve it or not, there are still stu­dents who do not have ac­cess to the In­ter­net at home. These are stu­dents who will not have ac­cess to the In­ter­net at all un­less their schools provide it. And once again, it should go without say­ing that these are the stu­dents who need it most.

Al­most five dec­ades have passed since the United Na­tions of­fi­cially re­cog­nized ac­cess to qual­ity edu­ca­tion as a ba­sic hu­man right. Now, for the first time, the ad­vent of ad­apt­ive and oth­er di­git­ally per­son­al­ized learn­ing tools of­fers us the chance to make good on that prom­ise.

In the United States, we can only do this if we make the best ed-tech tools avail­able to the stu­dents who need them.

All stu­dents de­serve the best edu­ca­tion pos­sible, the best of the In­ter­net, and the best of mod­ern ed-tech. I ap­plaud the FCC and Chair­man Wheel­er for their work to­ward that goal.

Jeff Liv­ing­ston is a seni­or vice pres­id­ent of edu­ca­tion policy at Mc­Graw-Hill Edu­ca­tion, a di­git­al-learn­ing com­pany. Mc­Graw-Hill Edu­ca­tion cre­ates highly per­son­al­ized on­line learn­ing ex­per­i­ences to stu­dents in more than 60 lan­guages.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. In­ter­ested in sub­mit­ting a piece? Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com with a brief pitch. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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