Closing the Broadband Gap for Students and Teachers

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)

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)

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.

Cloudy With a Chance of Data

Recently, a lot of people have been talking about cloud computing and asking what it means to store student information in the cloud.  Unfortunately, confusion and misunderstanding can sometimes cloud the issue (pun intended).  In order to understand the potential risks and opportunities, we should take a minute to understand what it actually means to put data “in the cloud”.

Online systems are powered by computers called servers.  In the past, servers were generally located in the same physical vicinity as the people using them. Email servers were stored somewhere near the office where the users worked; student information system servers were stored somewhere in the school or district where the students attended. As demand for online tools increased and tolerance for “down time” decreased, the requirements for storing (or hosting) web servers became increasingly complex.

Row of web servers

Row of web servers in a large data center.

Fortunately, as network speeds have increased, data can travel faster and web servers no longer need to be stored in close physical proximity to the users in order to have access to the data. This allows the creation of remote hosting centers that can be designed specifically to meet the requirements of storing web servers for schools and districts. Since servers for multiple schools and districts can be stored in the same data center, the cost to each district could be reduced even while adding features (cooling, power, backups, physical security, etc.).  The concept of hosting web servers in shared data centers became known as “cloud storage”. Server rooms needed special cooling systems, backup generators, and redundant internet connections. In addition as more and more data began to be stored digitally, increased physical security was needed to guard against unauthorized access to the server room.  Meeting these demands added an enormous burden to district IT budgets – not to mention increased space requirements in buildings that were already overcrowded.

It is important to note that the co-location of servers for multiple schools in a single data center is not the same as comingling the student information into a single database. This may be the most widely misunderstood concept about storing student data in the cloud. Think about how email works. An email account is hosted in a remote “cloud” data center along with thousands of other email accounts. But just because our email accounts “live” in the same data center does not mean that I can read someone else’s email or vice versa.  Along the same lines, organizations that provide cloud data solutions for schools would not be able to amass a single database of student data or allow unauthorized individuals to access that data without violating privacy laws and the terms of contracts with school districts on which they depend.

Whenever student data is being stored—whether on paper, on servers in the back room of a school building, or “in the cloud”—security, privacy and other legal and operational issues must always be addressed. While specially–built data centers can offer additional physical and digital protections for student data, appropriate credentialing requirements, audit trails, and access controls must always be in place. In addition, state or federal laws, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) may apply. Check out this blog post by our Chief Privacy Officer for answers to common questions about privacy in the cloud.

We encourage parents and students who want more information on how their schools employ cloud computing to contact their schools directly. It’s important for everyone to stay informed about how data is being protected and how student data is being used to improve the learning experience.

Richard Culatta is the Deputy Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. 

Education Datapalooza: Unleashing the Power of Open Data to Help Students, Parents, and Teachers

Imagine new tools to help students choose a college that is right for them and their family.  Or imagine an easy-to-read virtual dashboard for parents to track the academic performance of their children.  Or imagine a digital file that makes it easier for children of active military and for foster youth to make the transition to a new school.

These are the kinds of advances that were on display at the White House last fall, as more than 150 of America’s entrepreneurs, software developers, education experts, and policy makers come together for an Education Datapalooza. The gathering was a chance to celebrate new products, services, and apps—all built with freely available data from the government and other sources—that have the potential to help American students succeed and that empower students and their families to make informed educational decisions. Notable among the day’s many impressive announcements:

  • Over 78 million people are now able to download their own Federal student loan and grant data from the Department of Education via the NSLDS Student Access system.
  • On the K-12 level, pioneering school districts and states—including York County and New York State—are committing to give students the ability to access and download their own academic data.
  • A new state-led effort will make it easier to transfer academic information digitally and securely when moving between schools, an especially valuable service for children of active military and foster children.
  • A new Department of Education and higher education institution collaboration to work on a data standard for postsecondary course catalogs, degree requirements, and related information. As more postsecondary institutions provide their course and awards data in the same format, students will benefit with new options to shorten college completion time and costs.

Watch our playlist of the day’s presenters, including Secretary Duncan and US CTO Todd Park, or view them here.

Many of the announcements of the day build off a simple principle: in an increasingly digital educational system, students should have easy access to their own data.  Moreover, these data should be secure, yet mobile; too often, students can see their data online but can’t take it with them.

One of the core projects talked about is the MyData Initiative—a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Education and software developers to help students securely export or download their own educational data in open, machine-readable, human-readable formats, on any system. A number of vendors that already provide schools with software systems have committed to offer this functionality.

Giving students their own data can be potentially game-changing. For example, with access to their own data, students are able to create personal learning profiles—educational portfolios of their own records. They can then choose to safely share pieces of those learning profiles with an ever-growing network of applications being built by private-sector entrepreneurs to help inform choices about which classes to take, which colleges to apply to, and how to pay for tuition.

Open data standards can also solve problems inherent in the antiquated paper-based student record system. For example, many teachers and principals across the country deal with new students who show up at their classrooms with virtually no paper trail. This forces educators to make important decisions with no student records, no data, and no points of reference. If every student information system can import and export student academic records in the same standardized format, it makes it easier for schools to transfer information internally and with other schools. Moreover, this problem disproportionately affects low-income students, who are often more likely to be transient and are most dependent on support from their schools.

Smart use of open data will help improve college access and affordability for students, and help us meet the President’s challenge to regain our place as world leader in our proportion of college graduates by 2020.

Other open data initiatives such as the Blue Button and Green Button—which are empowering citizens with their own health information and household energy usage information—have proven that liberating data from government vaults can fuel new products and services, grow new businesses, and help create jobs. The Education Datapalooza demonstrated that this model of openness and entrepreneurship can help us achieve similar gains for American education.

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Education Innovation Clusters: Accelerating Innovation Through Regional Partnerships

At a time when advances in technology and digital media hold the potential to dramatically reshape the way we approach instruction, assessment, and research, many barriers still continue to slow innovation in learning, teaching and educational technologiesAccelerating the pace of innovation requires collaboration between educators, researchers, and commercial partners to work through these problems and create a shared research and development ecosystem.

Across the country, clusters of innovation are beginning to emerge in regions where these partnerships are forming.  These clusters rely on collective expertise and resources to spur ideas, incubate new businesses, and most importantly, improve student learning.  From Boston to Los Angeles, communities are building on this model by focusing unique regional strengths in the learning sciences, learning analytics and learning games to name a few.

To encourage this innovative cluster approach, last week, the US Department of Education convened at the University of Pennsylvania thirteen groups of leaders from communities across the country. Participants shared the unique assets and approaches they are taking advantage of and discussed strategies for overcoming challenges that limit collaboration and impede innovation.

Jim Shelton, ED assistant deputy secretary for innovation, and Richard Culatta, deputy director in the Office of Education Technology, led conversations during the event that focused on identifying critical elements of successful clusters and approaches for solving common challenges in sustaining collaborative innovation. The event also included talks from Nisith Acharya, director of the Department of Commerce’s Office of Innovation and Adam Frankel, CEO of Digital Promise, about ways for these clusters to engage current innovation initiatives for support in building and sustaining successful clusters.

All participating leaders committed to taking best practices from across the country back to their respective innovation networks and communities.  More importantly, the respective leaders committed to finding ways to support each other as a national network of innovation hubs instead of series of stand-alone communities.  As regional partnerships become stronger and interconnectivity among regions increases, expect to see an acceleration of the development of educational tools and technologies that will improve learning for students across the country.

More information and elements of effective clusters can be found on the education innovation cluster website.

Richard Culatta is deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology