$20 billion ed-tech project awaits action by Congress

Legislation that would funnel an estimated $20 billion in revenue toward educational technology research and development (R&D) is languishing in committee in both the Senate and the House, and supporters of the measure say it’s doubtful that Congress will take up either bill before the end of the current legislative session.

The Senate’s version of the legislation, called the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust Act (S. 2603), proposes creating a billion-dollar government agency—on par with the National Institutes of Health or National Science Academies—to enhance federal ed-tech programs.

Funding would come from auctioning the publicly owned electromagnetic spectrum that carries television, radio, telephone, and other signals. Portions of this spectrum are still being allocated and reallocated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to the highest-bidding companies, government agencies, and others.

The bill’s sponsors, Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and James Jeffords, I-Vt., estimate that auctioning the remaining spectrum could yield more than $20 billion in revenue for the United States Treasury.

Normally these proceeds go into the treasury as general funds, but the lawmakers propose they be used to transform learning in the 21st century.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced a similar version of the bill in the House of Representatives, called the Wireless Technology Investment and Digital Dividends Act of 2002 (H.R. 4641).

Former NBC News President Larry K. Grossman and former FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow came up with the idea for the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust last year and have been promoting it through their Digital Promise Project web site.

The premise is that the educational potential of the internet and other technologies have barely been tapped—and while many institutions serve as repositories of knowledge, information, and educational resources and programs, they are fragmented and uncoordinated.

The project’s organizers envision developing the internet, virtual reality, gaming, and software applications in ways that truly transform learning.

“The internet is at that very infantile stage. It’s not even crawling yet,” said Anne Murphy, director of the Digital Promise Project. “We think there needs to be a drive and focus on getting technology to support learning.”

One of the goals is to digitize content from museums, libraries, and universities and make it available online to revolutionize learning.

“What research is being done is great, but it’s not being done in a concerted way and there’s no cohesive plan,” said Murphy, who added that the bill appears unlikely to move this year.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) was one of the first educational organizations to endorse the Digital Promise Project.

“We think it’s important that there be some investment in research and development as well as online content,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s executive director. “We think there is a lack of R&D on educational technology in general.”

The eRate has provided schools with technology infrastructure, and schools are adding increased bandwidth that makes interactive content possible. “What good is bandwidth without good applications and content?” asked Krueger, who added that he’s not surprised the legislation appears stalled this session.

“It’s been moving faster than most would have predicted, given the size of the request,” he said. “It took several years [for the eRate to pass]. … I think this is laying the groundwork for the next [session of] Congress.”

Some educators applaud the legislation’s goals.

“We need to anticipate the future,” said Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania. “I am impressed with the potential.”

Others question how useful the measure would be to educators, considering the value of what already exists.

“I think that the bill is on the right track, as there is a need for research and a comprehensive [strategy],” said Marc B. Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California. “However, this is not a $20 billion project. Much of the work is already done and just needs to be codified and translated into useable strategies for schools.”

The legislation proposes using the funds from the spectrum sale to supplement federal funds for education programs, funding innovative research, training teachers, researching and developing educational software, digitizing educational materials, retraining workers and unemployed individuals, and to enable schools, community colleges, universities, libraries, museums, civic organizations, and nonprofit agencies to take advantage of innovative telecommunications and information technologies to reach outside their walls and into homes, schools, and the workplace.


Digital Opportunity Investment Trust

Consortium for School Networking

eSchool News Staff

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