Panelists: Digital tools expand learning opportunities

“The program has met its goals in a dial-up world, but it has to be taken to the next level,” he said. “No area has greater potential to transform the lives of our children than education, and no technology has greater potential to transform education than broadband internet.”

The FCC plans to launch a pilot program that would let schools use e-Rate money to help pay for electronic reading devices that can download digital textbooks. The agency also plans to let schools and libraries use e-Rate funding to lease unused fiber-optic lines or pay for access over existing local and regional fiber networks to achieve faster internet connections.

Roughly half of all schools and libraries now taking advantage of the e-Rate have internet speeds of just 1.5 megabits per second, according to the commission.

The e-Rate provides discounts of up to 90 percent on the cost of telecommunications services, internet access, and the wiring, switches, file servers, and other equipment needed to bring internet access into classrooms. If the FCC’s commissioners approve these ideas on Sept. 23, they would be among the biggest changes yet in the program’s 12-year history.

eTextbooks for a new learning generation

“I’m very excited about eTextbooks,” Genachowski said. “Why shouldn’t every kid have an eReader [device] that not only has the most up-to-date textbooks, but also the most advanced” interactive tools and content?

Murugan Pal, co-founder and president of the nonprofit CK-12 Foundation, which aims to reduce textbook costs by using an open-content, web-based collaborative textbook model, said the nature of open electronic textbooks makes them highly adaptable for students with different needs.

Mobile devices give students the ability to access customizable versions of web-based texts from anywhere, at any time, Pal said. Schools can take an open, web-based text from CK-12’s online collection and adapt it in three different ways—one for remedial students, one for students performing at grade level, and a third version for students performing above grade level.

“Any class is not going to be one size fits all,” he said.

Building on what Pal said, Karen Cator, director of education technology for the U.S. Department of Education, said U.S. schools must “ensure that students have in their backpacks not a stack of textbooks, but a mobile device that has a wealth of information.”

Learning in the digital age, Cator said, is “incredibly social; it’s very participatory.” And that has important implications for today’s educators.

In fact, she said, the way most people learn today has shifted. In the past, a person might have sought the answer to a question alone, but today people tend to reach out to internet search engines and forums, friends, and social networking such as Facebook and Twitter to answer questions.

“The act of learning hasn’t changed, but the opportunities for learning have fundamentally changed,” Cator said. And because today’s students live in such a digitally rich, always-on world, school leaders should make sure they have access to mobile devices that offer easy access to all this information.

Digital learning raises important questions

The availability of digital technologies raises important questions about access and content, panelists noted.

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