e-Rate gets facelift with wireless pilot, community access

Dark fiber will be eligible for e-Rate discounts under an FCC ruling.

Dark fiber will be eligible for e-Rate discounts under a new FCC ruling.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Sept. 23 voted to upgrade and modernize the federal $2.25 billion-a-year e-Rate program by allowing schools to make e-Rate funded, internet-enabled computers available to the community after normal school operating hours—a step that supporters and stakeholders say will help students and community members build important digital literacy skills.

The FCC also voted to let e-Rate participants use funds to connect to the internet in the most cost-effective way possible, including through existing state, regional, and local networks or by employing unused fiber-optic lines already in place.

The agency also approved a pilot program that will support off-campus wireless internet connectivity for mobile learning devices. The pilot will explore the benefits that low-cost, accessible mobile devices can bring to students, including helping to close the technology access gap between children from affluent communities and those from economically disadvantaged areas.

“When our schools and students win, our country wins,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “At connected schools, students can access the best learning tools, the best teachers, and the best tutors wherever they are.”

Genachowski said the FCC’s actions recognize that “digital literacy is essential in a digital economy, and that connected schools and libraries are a requirement to digital literacy. We fail our students if we don’t teach basic digital skills.”

The FCC’s plans for an off-campus wireless pilot are in line with the Obama administration’s goal of broadband and community access, said John Harrington, CEO of e-Rate consulting firm Funds For Learning. By expanding a school’s wireless internet reach into its surrounding neighborhood, community members suddenly have access to a reliable network with fairly light evening traffic.

“It can become a beacon, literally, for internet access,” he said.

While details stemming from the FCC’s vote will reveal more information, for now “the [program’s] overall direction is definitely one that makes sense,” Harrington added.

“Programs such as the e-Rate have been instrumental in keeping many of America’s schools and libraries connected to the outside world,” said FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. “[This] change will encourage wider broadband use without increasing Universal Service distributions.”

The steps come after the National Broadband Plan laid out a series of recommendations to promote broadband-enabled learning inside and outside classrooms, including modernizing the e-Rate program. The plan found that basic broadband connectivity struggles to keep pace with high-tech tools that today’s students use. In fact, an FCC survey revealed that 79 percent of responding e-Rate recipients said they needed faster connections to meet the demands of students, teachers, and library patrons.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said the vote was another important step forward in implementing the National Broadband Plan, and he said the e-Rate program is his “favorite program of all.”

Copps said the resources available to schools and libraries through the e-Rate program will go a long way in benefiting students and community members.

One notable change classifies dark fiber—or unused fiber—as an acceptable service under the e-Rate program.

During the technology boom of the 1990s, many telecom companies installed more fiber-optic cables than would ever be used. The dot-com bust led to an oversupply of unused dark fiber, enabling many companies to purchase their own dark fiber and create their own networks.


Newark, NJ, schools to get $100M Facebook donation

Zuckerberg's donation could help the long-struggling school system (AP).

Zuckerberg's donation could help the long-struggling school system (AP).

Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old wunderkind behind Facebook, is making a move to become a player in philanthropy just before the opening of a film that portrays him as less than charitable.

The recipient of his $100 million donation–thought to be the biggest of his young life–is the Newark public schools, a long-struggling district that could use the money to become a laboratory for reforms.

The donation is being announced Sept. 24 on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show in an arrangement that brings together the young internet tycoon, Newark’s celebrated Democratic mayor and a governor who has quickly become a star of the Republican party.

The unusual coalition is more evidence of the growing cache of the cause of remaking urban public schools, an issue that has long confounded educators and advocates.

“What you’re seeing is for the under-40 set, education reform is what feeding kids in Africa was in 1980,” said Derrell Bradford, the executive director of the Newark-based education reform group Excellent Education for Everyone. “Newark public schools are like the new Live Aid.”

Zuckerberg is not the first person to get rich on technology and then donate some of his wealth to urban schools.

Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced $290 million in education grants, along with $45 million for research into effective teaching. The grants included $100 million to Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla., and $90 million to Memphis City Schools. The Gates Foundation also has given than $150 million to New York City schools over the past eight years, primarily for a project to transform its high schools into small schools.

An official familiar with the Newark plan confirmed it to The Associated Press on Sept. 23. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the parties have been told not to usurp the announcement on Winfrey’s show. The donation was initially reported late on Sept. 22 by media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Star-Ledger of Newark.

The state Education Department, Facebook, and the Newark mayor’s office have been mum on the donation, but that hasn’t stopped Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker from hinting about it on their Twitter accounts.

Booker tweeted: “Looking forward to Oprah on Friday! Please tune in to learn more about what’s going on in Newark.” Christie replied: “See you in Chicago,” then added: “Great things to come for education in Newark.”

The deal also sets the stage for Christie’s announcement next week on his plans to reform the state’s schools.

Some suggested that altruism was not the only thing driving the gift.

The announcement comes a week before the film “The Social Network” opens widely. The movie, whose tagline is “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies,” portrays Zuckerberg as taking the idea for Facebook from other Harvard students.

“I hate to be cynical and there are few districts in the nation that couldn’t use an infusion of cash more than Newark,” wrote blogger Christopher Dawson on ZDNet. “However, the timing of the announcement, coinciding with a high-profile return of district control from the state of New Jersey to the municipality of Newark, on Oprah no less, feels a little too staged.”

Forbes.com was asking readers: “Was the gift heartfelt or cunning PR?”


RIM readies its answer to iPad

The Wall Street Journal reports that BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. could unveil its new tablet computer—as well as the operating system that will power it—as early as next week at a developers’ conference in San Francisco, said people familiar with RIM’s plans. The tablet, which some inside RIM are calling the BlackPad, is scheduled for release in the fourth quarter of this year, these people said. It will feature a seven-inch touch screen and one or two built-in cameras, they said. It will have Bluetooth and broadband connections but will only be able to connect to cellular networks through a BlackBerry smartphone, these people said. Since the tablet won’t be sold with a cellular service, it’s not clear which carriers or retailers will sell the device…

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Facebook founder to donate $100 million to remake Newark’s schools

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive and a founder of Facebook, has agreed to donate $100 million to improve the long-troubled public schools in Newark, and Gov. Chris Christie will cede some control of the state-run system to Mayor Cory A. Booker in conjunction with the huge gift, according to the New York Times. The three men plan to announce the arrangement on Friday on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” The changes would not formally relax the legal power the state seized in 1995, when it declared Newark’s schools a failure and took control of the system, replacing the elected school board with a mostly toothless advisory board. Rather, Mr. Christie plans to give the mayor a major role in choosing a new superintendent and redesigning the system, but to retain the right to take control back. For now, at least, the arrangement tightens an already friendly relationship between the governor, a Republican, and the mayor, a Democrat who was once seen as a likely challenger for the State House in 2013…

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For-profit higher ed company opens national ad campaign

The national ad campaign by for-profit higher education provider Corinthian Colleges Inc. seeks to draw decision-makers and the broader public into a long-simmering debate over whether the federal government should tighten regulations on colleges that operate for profit, the Washington Post reports. The Obama administration has proposed 14 rules to overhaul the for-profit sector. The most contentious proposal requires programs to demonstrate that they yield “gainful employment” for their graduates and restricts or eliminates federal loan funds to programs that do not. The industry’s practices have been under particular scrutiny since the Government Accountability Office reported last month that recruiters at 15 for-profit colleges allegedly encouraged investigators posing as prospective students to commit fraud on financial aid applications or misled them about such matters as tuition costs and potential salaries after graduation…

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U. of Florida debates flat-fee tuition

The Miami Herald reports that Florida’s state university system is mulling a one-size-fits-all tuition structure for full-time students–an idea that could lead some to graduate sooner, but also carries the risk of students biting off more than they can chew.  Under the plan, which could receive final approval from the state Board of Governors as soon as November, full-time students at participating universities would pay a flat rate per semester, regardless of how many classes he or she actually takes. The pricing structure, known as block tuition, is already the norm at private universities across the country, and has been adopted by some high-profile public universities as well, including The University of Texas at Austin and UCLA.  An exact pricing model for Florida schools has yet to be hammered out, and schools may decide to charge slightly different rates. If a school chose 15 credit hours as the standard, a student taking only 12 credits would be paying for a class he or she wasn’t taking. On the plus side, a student taking 18 credits would be taking an extra class for free…

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Campus recovering after massacre

police tape webIt’s been more than five years now since a 16-year-old student at Red Lake High School in Minnesota shot and killed his grandfather and the grandfather’s girlfriend. He then took the grandfather’s police-issue weapons and squad car to his school, where he…


Groups urge updates to teacher preparation programs

Teachers equipped with digital-age skills will best serve today's students.

Teachers equipped with digital-age skills and teaching strategies will best serve today's students, a new paper argues.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) are calling on teacher education programs to update their curricula to better prepare future teachers to integrate 21st-century skills into their instruction.

The groups released a paper on Sept. 23 seeking to establish a shared vision for infusing digital-age knowledge and skills into teacher preparation programs and spark a meaningful discussion among higher-education leaders about how to implement this vision.

“New teacher candidates must be equipped with 21st-century knowledge and skills and learn how to integrate them into their classroom practice for our nation to realize its goal of successfully meeting the challenges of this century,” said Sharon P. Robinson, AACTE president, and Ken Kay, P21 president, in the paper’s introduction.

The document seeks to create an ongoing dialog about how to update teacher preparation for a new era in which students are digitally connected and are accustomed to learning in new ways—and employers are looking for candidates who can use digital tools to communicate effectively, collaborate on projects, solve problems, think critically, and innovate.

“One of the main goals of the paper was to outline how educator preparation programs can support 21st-century educators and students,” said Julie Walker, executive board and strategic council chair for P21 and executive director of the American Association of School Librarians. “It is incredibly important for preparation programs to go beyond the ‘transmission method’ of teaching and instead offer educator candidates experiences that help them develop rich, applied learning opportunities that will ensure 21st-century readiness for all students.”

AACTE and P21 developed a set of core principles to help integrate 21st-century skills and teaching strategies into educator preparation programs. Those principles include:

  • PreK-12 education will prepare all students with 21st-century knowledge and skills.
  • PreK-12 teachers and administrators should possess, teach, and assess 21st-century knowledge and skills.
  • Educator preparation programs will prepare graduates to possess, teach, and assess 21st-century knowledge and skills.
  • New teachers will be prepared to become change agents for embedding 21st-century knowledge and skills in all preK-12 subjects, according to national and state standards.
  • Higher-education leaders will work with leaders in preK-12 schools and local communities to inform the redesign of educator preparation programs to more effectively meet the needs of 21st-century learners.
  • Each educator preparation program will develop a 21st-century blueprint for transforming itself into a 21st-century program.
  • Educator preparation programs will be recognized as sources of leadership in developing 21st-century education and learning strategies.
  • Educator preparation programs will be at the forefront of research and evaluation of 21st-century education strategies.

Many teacher preparation programs already are employing strategies such as recruiting career changers to build the teacher workforce, creating year-long teaching residency programs for teacher candidates, and partnering with urban schools to prepare teacher candidates to teach in urban environments with large numbers of culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

AACTE’s teacher preparation reform efforts include gathering evidence that teachers who were taught at member institutions have a positive effect on student achievement; preparing teachers to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners; and giving teacher candidates extensive clinical experiences, with mentoring support that requires performance evaluation tied to the teacher licensing process.

Teacher preparation programs must do a better job of imparting digital-age skills and teaching strategies to future educators so they, in turn, are prepared to equip students for success in college and the workforce, many experts agree—and recent research supports this belief.

For instance, in one recent national survey, while a large majority of aspiring teachers (82 percent) said collaborative tools such as blogs and wikis are important instructional tools, only one in four are learning how to use these technologies in their courses on teaching methods. Instead, the primary technologies being taught in these teacher-education classes are productivity tools such as word processing, spreadsheet, and database software, respondents said.


Students: Video lectures allow for more napping

More than half of students said streaming video lectures have improved their grades.

More than half of students said streaming video lectures have improved their grades.

College students gave video lectures high marks in a recent survey, although many students supported the technology because it freed up more time for napping and hanging out with friends.

And three in 10 said their parents would be “very upset” if they knew just how often their child missed class and relied on their course web site.

A majority of students who responded to the survey, conducted in August by audio, internet, and video conferencing provider InterCall, said they would only attend a live lecture if an exam were scheduled for that day, or to borrow notes from a classmate. The survey didn’t indicate the percentage of students who took this position.

Far from being a scientific study, the poll nonetheless seems to confirm a key fear of many college professors about the availability of video lecture-capture technology: that it could lead to a drop in attendance at the live lectures themselves.

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Federal grants target education ‘from birth through college’

Funding for early childhood education can help students compete on a local and global scale.

Funding for early childhood education can help students compete on a local and global scale.

Organizers in distressed communities from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., soon will begin plans to create what the federal Education Department (ED) envisions as “Promise Neighborhoods,” where children and their families receive comprehensive support services to boost their chance of being successful in school.

Twenty-one applicants for the program—which aims to transform student outcomes by focusing, in part, on improving early childhood education and lifting up communities—were named as grant winners on Sept. 21. They will receive planning grants of up to $500,000.

“Communities across the country recognize that education is the one true path out of poverty,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “These Promise Neighborhoods applicants are committed to putting schools at the center of their work to provide comprehensive services for young children and students.”

The program is modeled after the successful Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides comprehensive support for families from pregnancy through birth, education, college, and career. Children in the program’s charter schools have made impressive gains on standardized tests and in closing the achievement gap.

More than 300 communities applied to become Promise Neighborhoods.

Applicants hope they can reproduce the results of the Harlem Children’s Zone, even if they can’t create charter schools and will have a fraction of the organization’s $84 million budget.

The Promise Neighborhoods were part of President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign platform, and he has requested $210 million in the 2011 budget to implement the program and plan for more Promise Neighborhoods.

The idea is this: Students don’t learn in isolation, and if they come to school with an empty stomach, or don’t feel safe at home, they’ll have a harder time learning in the classroom.

“We’re hoping we can bring families back together,” said Geri Small, chief professional officer for the Boys & Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, one of the organizations that won a grant.

Duncan visited the reservation last year, which has been plagued by high dropout rates and unemployment. The community has been challenged by drug and alcohol abuse, and the breakdown of the family structure, with many children in single family households, or with a parent in jail, Small said.

“The whole community, all the different organizations came together,” she said.

The Harlem Children’s Zone started its idea with a single block in New York City in the early 1990s, providing adults with financial advice and domestic crisis counseling, teaching expectant parents about prenatal nutrition and child rearing, and offering a safe place and high-quality early childhood education for preschool children.