Back in 1996, when the Internet was still a nascent idea in most American homes, Congress enacted a major re-write of our telecommunications laws. Among the many provisions in the new law was a contentious proposal to increase Internet connectivity in American classrooms and libraries. E-Rate, as the program is known, was launched in 1997 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the singular goal to improve connectivity in the nation’s most vulnerable communities. In the simplest terms, the program subsidizes networking infrastructure, making it easier for already strained schools and libraries, often in urban and rural America, to purchase the equipment. Opponents derided its costs, while supporters, ahead of the curve, pointed to the increasing need for the nation’s students to access the Internet. The thought was, and remains to be, that the Internet was a vast, untapped resource begging to be mined, what with its unparalleled ability to excite imaginations and spur economic growth.
The E-Rate program experienced some early growing pains, but has been increasingly effective and an important component to bring schools online. In fact, today, 97 percent of the nation’s schools are connected to the Internet, in part, no doubt, to E-Rate. It’s no secret that the E-Rate program opened the doors for countless students to explore the information superhighway who otherwise would not have had the chance.
Fast forward nearly two decades, and we find an entirely new Internet landscape that’s rendered much of what we know about it to be old news. No longer is the web a handy dial-up novelty to supplement term paper research. Nope; in 2014, wireless connectivity and speed are musts. Think about your own uses. Are you ever entirely disconnected? Save for a day or two at the beach when I disconnect, there isn’t a moment that goes by when I don’t have immediate access to online news services and apps, streaming video, search engines, or my files in the cloud with a simple tap of my finger. I’d bet the same goes for you.
Yet as access, speeds, services, and applications outside the classroom increase at breakneck speed, the same cannot be said for many of our students’ experiences. Only three in 10 low income students use tablet computers; just two in 10 teachers say their classrooms’ Internet connections are up to par; and teachers in low income communities are twice as likely to point to limited connectivity as a hurdle in the classroom. Similarly, according to the White House, the typical school has the same connectivity as the typical American home but serves roughly 200 times more users.
This is all to say today’s bandwidth and hardware demands are immense and won’t wane anytime soon.
And that’s why today we’re applauding the big announcements out of the White House and FCC. The president on Tuesday announced that ITI members Apple, Autodesk, and Microsoft, along with companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint are set to contribute more than $750 million in services, training, hardware, and software for schools around the country. Apple has pledged $100 million in hardware and teacher training. Microsoft will significantly discount its Windows-based devices and distribute 12 million copies of its software program, Office 365 Education, for free. And Autodesk will provide $250 million in software for science and art teachers.
Additionally, the FCC on Wednesday, recognizing that the E-Rate program needs to be modernized and could operate more efficiently, announced its commitment to ensure that nearly all of the nation’s schools aren’t just connected to the Internet, but more importantly, are provided with next generation broadband and high-speed wireless access within the next five years. Most impressive in all of this is the fact that it won’t cost the taxpayer a single dime, nor will it impose new burdens on innovation in order to grow the program. Instead, the FCC will restructure the E-Rate program and use existing funds more efficiently to expand the broadband program, nearly doubling its investment to $2 billion annually.
Collectively, these two endeavors have game changing potential never before seen in the education arena. It very well may be that you or I will never feel the immediate impact of either of these two programs. But the reality is that the president expects an additional 20 million students to have broadband access because of these new initiatives. That’s 20 million students who likely would have had the deck stacked against them as they matriculated through school.
As the classroom, or more appropriately, the idea of the classroom, continues to evolve, it’s absolutely imperative that students are given every opportunity to access the information that will help sharpen their skill sets as they enter the workforce. ITI has long argued that the nation’s sluggish economy is the result of a skills crisis more than a jobs crisis; simply look at the persistent number of job openings in highly skilled fields such as programming or engineering. Far too many students are leaving school lacking the versatile skills that today’s knowledge-based economy requires. And that’s why the exceptional leadership exhibited by our policymakers, and innovators like Apple, Autodesk, and Microsoft should be commended. Their pledges to increase both connectivity speeds and access will undoubtedly arm students with the in-demand skills today’s workplace requires.
Visit stem.itic.org to learn what other ITI members are doing to help shrink the skills gap.