Education in the United States took a large step into the digital age February 5 when Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that the FCC will double funding for the federal "E-Rate" program to connect 15,000 schools and 20 million students to high-speed broadband over the next two years. Just as the construction of the interstate highway system closed a distance divide in the United States by connecting individuals and making travel faster, high-speed broadband can bring today's schools into the twenty-first century and close an educational digital divide.
Appropriately Chairman Wheeler's announcement came on the third-annual Digital Learning Day which celebrates the effective use of technology to improve student outcomes and support teachers. It featured the participation of hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of students. In far too many schools, however, slow download speeds and limited connections to the internet prevent teachers and students from accessing engaging content and rigorous coursework that the internet can provide. According to the FCC, roughly half of the nation's E-rate schools currently have the same amount of Internet connectivity and speed as the average American home--even though schools serve hundreds more users.
As the majority of states prepare to implement higher educational standards and new online assessments aligned with them, schools will need faster and more reliable broadband connections. Without such a change, students in school districts with limited internet connections will be denied greatly increased learning opportunities necessary for their success. Also they will likely struggle to take and complete the online assessments in the allotted time; the longer it takes to test students, the more classroom instruction time is interrupted.
Providing high-speed internet access to schools and libraries is critical to preparing all US students to compete in an increasingly globalized world, in which 60 percent of jobs today require some form of postsecondary education. This evolving job market requires deeper learning skills such as critical thinking, communication, and the ability to research and compile information, and draw conclusions from complex data - much of which is done on computers and online. Ensuring that students graduate from high school with these skills is an increasingly large part of being college and career ready.
Many schools are already effectively incorporating technology into classroom learning. During the recent Digital Learning Day, students from Ripon High School in Ripon, California debated their peers 50 miles away at El Capitan High School in Merced, California using Google Hangouts. While debating whether colleges should be allowed to consider prospective students' "digital footprints," or their social media presence, in making admissions decisions, the students strengthened their communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills - all while using modern technology to actively engage in a civics lesson.
By enhancing and expanding the E-Rate program, the FCC is ensuring that more educators will have access to high-quality, real-time, ongoing, and relevant professional development. For example, my organization partnered with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University's College of Education to offer a massive open online course for educators (MOOC-Ed) that helped school administrators, teachers, and librarians work together to create a vision for student learning and develop a plan for how technology could help them to implement it.
Finally, improved and expanded technology access can help schools, parents and the community to communicate faster and more efficiently. For instance, Arlington Public Schools in Virginia recently launched a mobile app enabling parents to virtually follow their child's academic progress, track attendance, and communicate with teachers. Providing up-to-date information on school events, the app also notifies parents of snow day closures, teacher work days, and other news. As more school districts across the nation gain access to higher Internet speeds, instant communication programs like Arlington's will be the norm, not the exception.
With the additional funds that the FCC has pledged to the E-Rate program to speed up Internet connections in schools and libraries, school districts can administer new, online assessments; better prepare students to compete in an increasingly globalized economy; empower teachers with online professional development and tools that make their jobs easier; and enable parents to stay active in their child's education. This major administrative action will provide schools and districts across the country with opportunities to improve teaching and learning - all in an effort to make every school day a digital learning day.