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
Jeff Livingston
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Jeff Livingston
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.

What We're Following See More »
FCC Tightens Internet Privacy Standards
1 hours ago

Along party lines, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to tighten privacy standards for Internet service providers. "The regulations will require providers to receive explicit customer consent before using an individual’s web browsing or app usage history for marketing purposes. The broadband industry fought to keep that obligation out of the rules."

Obama Commutes Another 98 Sentences
2 hours ago

President Obama commuted the sentences of another 98 drug offenders on Thursday. Most of the convicts were charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs or possession with intent to distribute. Many of the sentences were commuted to expire next year, but some will run longer. Others are required to enroll in residential drug treatment as a condition of their release.

DOJ Busts More Than 50 for Call Center Scam
2 hours ago

The Department of Justice announced today it's charged "61 individuals and entities for their alleged involvement in a transnational criminal organization that has victimized tens of thousands of persons in the United States through fraudulent schemes that have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. In connection with the scheme, 20 individuals were arrested today in the United States and 32 individuals and five call centers in India were charged for their alleged involvement. An additional U.S.-based defendant is currently in the custody of immigration authorities."

Johnson on Ballot Everywhere, Followed by Stein, McMullin
4 hours ago
Is McMullin Building the GOP in Exile?
6 hours ago

Evan McMullin, the independent conservative candidate who may win his home state of Utah, is quietly planning to turn his candidacy into a broader movement for principled conservatism. He tells BuzzFeed he's "skeptical" that the Republican party can reform itself "within a generation" and that the party's internal "disease" can't be cured via "the existing infrastructure.” The ex-CIA employee and Capitol Hill staffer says, “I have seen and worked with a lot of very courageous people in my time [but] I have seen a remarkable display of cowardice over the last couple of months in our leaders.” McMullin's team has assembled organizations in the 11 states where he's on the ballot, and adviser Rick Wilson says "there’s actually a very vibrant market for our message in the urban northeast and in parts of the south."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.