Upgrading the federal e-Rate program to provide more connectivity to schools and libraries, removing the barriers to online learning so that more students can take advantage, and unlocking the power of data to personalize learning and improve school decision-making are three key recommendations to help education prosper under the National Broadband Plan that will be released next month, Federal Communication Commission (FCC) officials said during a Feb. 18 broadband meeting.
Meanwhile, the FCC took its first step toward changing the e-Rate’s rules to make it a better vehicle for delivering broadband access to all citizens: A Feb. 18 FCC order allows school systems to let members of their community use e-Rate funded infrastructure after school hours for the 2010 program year.
At the agency’s broadband meeting, officials revealed what they called “working recommendations” for the broadband plan in sectors such as education, health care, government, security, and job training.
The recommendations only address the “national purposes” section of the plan, and few details were made available. Still, they provide another glimpse into the agency’s thinking as educators await the release of the full plan next month.
High-speed internet access has integrated students into the digital world and has expanded educational opportunities for students, said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. Yet, while 97 percent of public elementary and secondary schools have internet access, connection speeds are largely insufficient, the FCC noted.
Led by Steve Midgley, the FCC’s director of education, members of the agency’s education team who are working on the National Broadband Plan outlined three key areas of emphasis for the plan.
One is to upgrade the e-Rate to increase its flexibility and improve the program’s efficiency. The FCC hopes to set national goals for school and library connectivity, support more flexibility in the development of infrastructure, and distribute funding for internal connections to more program recipients. (It was unclear from the Feb. 18 meeting how the FCC plans to achieve this last goal.)
The FCC also intends to streamline the e-Rate application process, index the cap to inflation, and foster innovation through pilot programs that would award some e-Rate funding competitively. Many of these changes are proposed in a bill to overhaul the e-Rate introduced by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., earlier this month.
Community colleges in particular lag in offering high-speed internet connections, the FCC said: Just 16 percent of community college campuses have high-speed broadband connections, compared with more than 90 percent of research universities. Markey’s bill would allow community colleges to benefit from the e-Rate as well.
Another area of focus for the broadband plan is supporting and promoting online learning.
The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is an example of the potential that broadband offers for students who do not have access to Advanced Placement classes in their brick-and-mortar schools, or for students who want to take a specialized course not often offered.
FLVS simply would not be possible without a robust broadband backbone, the FCC’s education team said.
Several studies have emerged supporting the idea of blended learning, or a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. Online learning can reduce the time required to learn by half and can increase course completion rates, the FCC said—but there are barriers to wider adoption.
To encourage wider adoption of online learning, the National Broadband Plan aims to remove the regulatory barriers to online learning; increase the supply of digital content and online learning systems; and promote digital literacy for students and teachers.
As online learning exists now, teachers often cannot teach online courses across state lines, and course accreditation often is based on “seat time,” not educational outcomes. The FCC wants to remove these regulatory barriers, though how it would do so remains unclear.
To promote the digital literacy of students and teachers, the agency intends to fund the integration of digital literacy into the curriculum. And to increase the supply of digital learning content, it will create standards for government-generated content, provide incentives for publishers to make their content digital, and simplify copyright rules to encourage more contributions, among other actions.
The third area of emphasis is leveraging the power of data to improve instruction.
Broadband can enable more widespread access to student data, the FCC said. Only 37 percent of teachers have electronic access to their students’ achievement data; yet, teachers can help students learn better when they have access to students’ learning preferences and needs, the education team said.
The FCC wants to foster the adoption of electronic education records; develop standards for financial data transparency; and create an online RFP broadcast service to make it easier for schools to get the best deals on goods and services.
Giving internet access to the community after school hours
The FCC on Feb. 18 also approved a motion that will allow schools receiving e-Rate funds to give community members access to computers and other resources after school hours. Computers would be available after regular school hours, during holidays, and over summer breaks.
Exact implementation details will be left to each school’s discretion, and schools will have to do so without additional e-Rate funds, the FCC said.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said the e-Rate’s success is encouraging, but the forthcoming broadband plan presents opportunities for the program’s expansion.
“Given all the opportunities we have with broadband, the opportunities to enhance the e-Rate are just tremendous,” Copps said. “Some schools are still at the lower end of speeds—some are even on ‘dinosaur dial-up,’ while other students are enjoying the digital affluence that real broadband can bring to their education.”
Provided that schools can support greater access to their computers using their current e-Rate funding, there is no reason to oppose the change, he said.
Commissioners Robert McDowell and Clyburn voiced their support for the change and said the expanded access will let community members take advantage of educational opportunities and government internet resources.
“This action will leverage universal service funding to serve a larger population at no increased cost to the e-Rate program,” an FCC statement said. “If a school chooses to allow community access, the general public will be able to use the internet access already present in schools for purposes such as job searches and applications, digital literacy programs, and online access to governmental services and resources. Increasing community access to the internet is particularly critical in communities where residential adoption of broadband internet access has historically lagged, including many rural, minority, and tribal communities.”
The FCC’s order waives the rule requiring schools to use e-Rate funds for “educational purposes” only. The waiver is effective only though the 2010 program year, and the agency is seeking comment on whether to make it permanent.