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.

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 Even today, outdated ideas about ed-tech prevail.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.

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