Funding the Internet pipeline for online learning

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Sep 9, 2013

In the mid-1990s, the Internet became the next big thing in telecommunications. To ensure that students would be able to participate in the emerging digital world, Congress created the E-Rate program as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The aim of the program was to help fund Internet connectivity for schools and libraries. When E-Rate was created, only 14 percent of classrooms had Internet access, but by 2005, 94 percent of instructional classrooms were connected to the Internet.

This year policymakers have again turned their focus to the E-Rate program. Over the last decade, an ecosystem of online educational resources and tools has emerged, which has created a need for better Internet access. Today, students and teachers increasingly require high-speed broadband to ensure that teaching and learning is not held up by problems with connectivity. In June of this year, President Obama launched the ConnectEd initiative and set a target of providing 99 percent of America’s students with high-speed broadband Internet within the next five years. In July, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is responsible for administering E-Rate, issued a 175-page Notice of Proposed Rule Making that details the areas in which it would like to revise the program.

As we consider potential revisions to E-Rate, one of the major challenges to getting the new policy right comes from the difficulty of trying to predict what our educational technology needs will be in five, 10, or 15 years. The current need to modernize E-Rate beyond its 1996 scope provides ample evidence of this difficulty. We need to make sure the new rules, which will likely be in place for at least the next decade, do not limit schools’ ability to take advantage of potential innovations in education.

Consider the following example of how education might evolve in the near future. Researchers and casual observers alike recognize that many of the best teachable moments and the best times for learning occur outside of the classroom. Given these realities, education could greatly benefit if we can leverage mobile instruction to foster learning during these out-of-school experiences. With reliable mobile connectivity, many more teachers could implement flipped classroom instruction—where students learn new content at their own pace at home and then come to class to practice and receive feedback on what they learned—without being constrained by unreliable home Internet. Likewise, if students all had reliable mobile connectivity, those who occasionally miss class would not need to be at risk of falling behind because teachers could instruct them and monitor their progress remotely. Additionally, when a class tours a museum or historical sight, teachers could use mobile devices to engage students and help them record their insights. These are just a few near-sighted examples of how mobile connectivity could facilitate learning moments outside of the school building. Internet connectivity through mobile broadband—such as the 4G data plans offered by our cell phone providers—could be one potential avenue for tapping into these learning moments. A number of barriers, however, currently prevent the widespread adoption of this technology.

The first barrier hindering schools’ adoption of wireless broadband is cost. Most schools’ technology budgets just don’t have the money to buy mobile devices with individual data plans for each of their students. As wireless providers, however, compete to build their infrastructures, improve their efficiency, and attract customers, the cost of wireless broadband should come down over time.

The second barrier to adoption is the E-Rate policy itself. E-Rate’s current rules only allow funds to cover Internet connections at school buildings and libraries. This rule was presumably intended to discourage schools and districts from getting into the messy business of paying for students’ families’ home Internet access. The scenario of providing mobile broadband for individual devices that can be owned, locked down, and supervised by the school, however, is different from hooking up cable and DSL to houses.

As we think about setting the right E-Rate policy for the next two decades, we should take a step back and make sure we are fostering a connectivity ecosystem that nurtures future innovation in addition to meeting present needs. Just as the forms of life that have evolved to live in a desert are significantly different from those that have adapted to thrive in a rainforest, the educational models that evolve in the future will be heavily influenced by the ecosystem in which they emerge. Who can tell what kinds of powerful new education models will be invented in the future if the conditions are right? As we consider how best to revise E-Rate, we need to make sure we do not constrain our ecosystem in such a way that we prevent potentially valuable educational models from coming into existence. Although certain technologies, such as wireless broadband, might not now seem practical, leaving such options open for schools may prove critical in the future. To foster innovation, we need to make sure that the new version of E-Rate is agnostic to specific technologies or connectivity strategies. We also need to ensure that we fund connectivity for learning-focused activities rather than just for school buildings.

Note: The public comment period for the FCC’s E-Rate NPRM ends on September 16th. If you would like to share your perspective with the FCC, please click here and then click on the link for proceeding number 13-184. To read comments from others, click here.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.