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Obama Promises Better Connectivity for Schools, but That’s Not Enough to Get Teachers to Use Technology in Class

Last month President Obama announced his latest ambition, the ConnectED Initiative. Within the next five years the initiative aims to provide 99 percent of America's students access to next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in their schools and libraries. Obama has called on the Federal Communications Commission to see his plan to fruition, and is directing the federal government to make better use of existing funds to get this technology into classrooms. He is also asking businesses, districts, schools, and communities to support his vision.

"We are living in a digital age, and to help our students get ahead, we must make sure they have access to cutting-edge technology," said President Obama in an official press release. "So today, I'm issuing a new challenge for America—one that families, businesses, school districts and the federal government can rally around together— to connect virtually every student in America's classrooms to high-speed broadband internet within five years, and equip them with the tools to make the most of it."

According to the Obama Administration, the average US school has slower internet connections than most homes, and fewer than 20 percent of educators think that their school's web access meets their teaching needs—a fact that Obama and his administration hope to reverse by 2018.

The document also highlights a few key schools that will serve as models of successful educational technology integration. Obama announced his ambitious new initiative in one of the schools, Moorseville Middle School in Mooreseville, N.C. "In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn't we have it in our schools?" Obama said to 970 students, parents, and teachers gathered in the school's gym.

According to Associated Press reporter Mitch Weiss, technology has, in fact, transformed the school district, which now has the second-best test scores and third-best graduation rates in the state. The administration fact sheet also reported that the district ranked 100th out of 115 school districts in terms of dollars spent per student. "You're spending less money with better outcomes," Obama said to Mooresville residents. "There's no reason why we can't replicate the success of what we found here."

The district, which operates on a 1:1 model for all students in third grade and above, has also shown improvement since Mark Edwards became superintendent in 2007. Between 2008 and 2011, graduation rates and state test scores both increased by more than 10 percent. "This is not about the technology. It's not about the box. It's about changing the culture of instruction—preparing students for their future, not our past," said Edwards.

As a response to the Obama's call to action, the Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission has begun finalizing a five-point plan outlining the steps needed to achieve his goal of increased connectivity. The commission, launched last year, is co-chaired by our CEO Jim Steyer, and a blueprint of its forthcoming plan touched on a few central concepts:

  • Solve infrastructure challenges by upgrading the wiring of our schools
  • Build a national effort to deploy devices
  • Accelerate the adoption of a digital curriculum
  • Empower teachers to use technology, and create a program for "master teachers" to train their peers
  • Embrace and encourage model schools

But overcoming barriers to access is only part of the challenge of unlocking educational technology's potential to transform teaching and learning.

Writing at Edutopia last week, Steyer said that despite being enthusiastic about the potential for education technology, teachers don't report using edtech very frequently. Even in 1:1 programs, "on a weekly basis, just 15 percent of teachers are using subject-specific content tools, 37 percent are using information/reference tools, 18 percent are using tools for teachers, and 20 percent are using digital curricula."

Teachers say that in addition to lack of funds and technology infrastructure, the biggest barriers are a lack of time to implement new uses of technology; too little training; and not enough time to identify high quality tools that support teaching and learning.

One potential solution is Graphite, our new free online resource that combines independent reviews of edtech products with rigorous ratings that are relevant and meaningful to educators. It evaluates products for engagement, how well they help students learn, and how well they support educators. The tool is designed to help teachers select the right edtech tools for their needs.

"And at the core of Graphite is a growing community of teachers who share their expertise with personal reviews and field notes about how they use each product, and what works best with their students," Steyer said.

You can read more about Graphite on our Education blog.

Kelsey Herron
Kelsey Herron is a freelance journalist for HiredPen Inc. She blogs regularly about national and local trends in technology and education for Common Sense Media.