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PHOTO CAPTION:  President Barack Obama views student projects created on laptops during a tour at Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., June 6, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

June 7, 2013
By Richard Culatta

Yesterday, President Obama and Secretary Duncan launched the ConnectED initiative—a call to connect 99 percent of schools across the country to broadband Internet within five years. The President issued this challenge while visiting North Carolina’s Mooresville Graded School District, one of the most heralded examples of tech-infused education in the country. Mooresville, one of the lowest-funded districts in North Carolina, invested six years ago in a district-wide “digital conversion,” and has since leapfrogged to top of the state rankings.

The Internet is a powerful tool for putting engaging learning resources, on-demand explanations of concepts, and primary documents and tools for solving real-world problems into the hands of students and teachers. Yet today, most US schools lack the bandwidth to support using these digital learning resources in the classroom.

President Obama described fixing that problem as an essential step in the high-quality education that will keep America a leader in an increasingly competitive global economy.

“Today, the average American school has about the same bandwidth as the average American home, even though obviously there are 200 times as many people at school as there are at home,” the President said in Mooresville. “Only around 20 percent of our students have access to true high-speed Internet in their classroom. By comparison, South Korea has 100 percent of its kids with high-speed Internet. … In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools?”

Because of those digital deficits, the learning experience in these schools is the most un-connected part of the day for many students and teachers. Without broadband access, students can be constrained by the limits of resources at their specific schools. Yesterday, the President has called on all of us to close that gap and ensure that all students and teachers—regardless of geography or income—can access the rich opportunities afforded by digital learning that the students and teachers from Mooresville have enjoyed.

But this is not just about cables and wires. As Mooresville superintendent Mark Edwards has explained, “It’s about changing the culture of instruction—preparing students for their future, not our past.” Ensuring connectivity in the hands of students and teachers is a catalyst for reimagining the learning experience itself by enabling personalized learning and connectivity to experts.

“Imagine a young girl growing up on a farm in a rural area who can now take an AP biology or AP physics class, even if her school is too small to offer it,” President Obama said in his Mooresville remarks. “Imagine a young boy with a chronic illness that means he can’t go to school, but now he can join his classmates via Skype or FaceTime and fully participate in what’s going on.”

The ConnectED initiative will also invest in improving the skills of teachers, ensuring that every educator in America receives support and training to use technology to help improve student outcomes. The Department of Education will work with states and school districts to better use existing funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to strategically invest in professional development to help teachers keep pace with changing technological and professional demands.

The following are the key elements of the ConnectED initiative outlined by the President:

¦Upgraded Connectivity: Within five years, connect 99 percent of America’s students and teachers to broadband and high-speed wireless at speeds no less than 100 Mbps. The President called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to immediately modernize and leverage the existing E-Rate program, and leverage the expertise of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to deliver this connectivity to states, districts, and schools.

¦Trained Teachers: The ConnectED initiative will invest in improving the skills of teachers, ensuring that every educator in America receives support and training to use technology to help improve student outcomes. The Department of Education will work with states and school districts to better use existing funds through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to strategically invest in professional development that supports teachers to provide a technology-enabled education to their students.

¦Build on Private-Sector Innovation: These investments will allow our teachers and students to take full advantage of feature-rich educational devices that are increasingly price-competitive with basic textbooks and high-quality educational software providing content aligned with college- and career-ready standards being adopted and implemented by states across America.

Today’s teachers face the responsibility of preparing students to thrive in a world of ever-rising expectations and an ever-widening pool of international competition for jobs. In response to the widely recognized need for increased rigor, 46 states and the District of Columbia are currently in the process of transitioning to new, college- and career-ready standards. We can’t afford to deny teachers the tech-supported teaching tools they need to ensure that students achieve to these standards and do their best work every day.

As Secretary Duncan put it to reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday, technology is “a game changer” that empowers students and helps teachers. “Teachers can collaborate across the country with their peers. They can individualize instruction in ways that just hasn’t been able to happen historically… If we can invest to create access to high-speed broadband, we open up a new world of educational opportunity.”

Richard Culatta is the acting director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.