Good News for wi-fi and High-Speed Internet, Bad News for Pagers

I remember 1996 pretty well. Bill Clinton was president. Apple was a near-doomed computer company. We had no idea that Y2K was headed our way. And I had a pager. Yes, I was a “wanna-be cool kid” in middle school, discreetly excusing myself to use the bathroom when I was in fact using the payphone so that I could dial 07734 (that’s code for hello) to another friend’s pager. In 1996, that was important.

Since the last decade of the twentieth century, however, most people have stopped using pagers. Most people, that is, with the exception of some of our nation’s K-12 school administrators. Dumbfounded, you ask: “Pagers? Why do they still have pagers?” Well, the answer is pretty simple. Since 1996, the major source federal funding for education technology, E-Rate, has provided significant subsidies for schools and districts to buy pagers and pager services so that administrators can page one another. And at the same time, E-Rate has not considered wide-spread wireless routers (wi-fi) as an allowable expense (in addition to other modern infrastructure necessities including high speed internet upgrades). Backwards, right? But thanks to some sweeping changes to the backwards E-Rate funding system, the Federal Communications Commission approved a series of broad changes which will phase out pagers and put much more resources and regulations change into wi-fi infrastructure and faster internet.

Last June, President Obama urged the FCC to modernize E-Rate. And last October, I wrote about the importance of educators letting the FCC know, via public comment, about making these reforms. It appears the FCC listened and the timing couldn’t be better. With the unrolling of Smarter Balanced (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the infrastructure changes are necessary to ensure that schools are ready to assess students beyond using a paper and pencil. It renews a federal commitment made almost twenty years ago that all students must have access to high-speed internet, regardless of how rich or poor those students may be.

As E-Rate makes the changes, with an additional $1B funding to maintain and provide for these changes, more Delaware schools will likely apply for funding to make wi-fi upgrades. Presently, Delaware’s school districts rely heavily on the state’s once modern, now aged (circa 1999) infrastructure for internet access. Since many of Delaware’s schools have sporadic wi-fi networks, at best, this could mean an increase in E-Rate subsidized high-speed and wi-fi improvement projects. It could mean increased educational opportunities for students to use new, portable devices such as tablets, laptops, and maybe even their own personal devices. And it will also mean a silencing of the “beep, beep, beep” that come from those pagers.

Focusing on Student-Centered Learning Experiences

Earlier in the week, I wrote a blog about the kick-off of Digital Learning Day.  I hope you were able to participate and I’m glad there’s a day to recognize the efforts of students, teachers, and school leaders who are spearheading innovation.  Now that the official “Day” is over, it’s important to reflect on the work in this area that’s happening every day of the school year, across the state of Delaware.

Teachers like Tara Amsterdam and Beth Greenstein in the Colonial School District, and Jill Szymanski in the Red Clay School District are flipping instruction, providing highly individualized student feedback, and are maximizing their instructional time in the classroom.  Teachers like Melissa Tracy in the Red Clay School District are spearheading the effort to make courses accessable by offering them through an online distance-learning lab.  And the Rodel Teacher Council is creating a policy blueprint for personalized learning.  At the end of March, the Council will be going on a two day site visit of schools in New York City’s iZone, a cluster of schools throughout the city that are embracing blended learning models, flipped classrooms, digital learning, and other means of student-centered learning.

By providing access to high quality, student specific educational content; facilitating collaboration; and giving teachers more flexibility, technology an essential component in personalized student instruction.  Students in Delaware are reaping the benefits of instructors who are embracing this throughout their classrooms, schools, and districts.

Highlighting Digital Learning Day

Today, February 5, is Digital Learning Day, a nationwide celebration of innovative teachers and digital learning in America’s schools.  The initiative focuses on technologies that support teachers, improve student outcomes, and provide options for students to achieve at their highest potential.  Across the US, schools are leveraging technology to personalize instruction—a student centered approach which discards the notion that “one size fits all.”

In recognition of Digital Learning Day, the Delaware Department of Education is hosting its second annual Online Professional Development Conference this week. Designed for educators (and open to the public), the conference offers sessions such as “Smarter Choices for Personalized Learning,” “Flipping Your Classroom: Getting Started,” and “Content Delivery in a 1:1 iPad School.” And the Department isn’t the only place in Delaware that’s celebrating Digital Learning Day. At Shields Elementary School in Cape Henlopen School District, students today are participating in a flipped Language Arts Class.  Additionally, Shields’ students are participating in differentiated workgroups to complete paperless assignments. And at Pleasantville Elementary School in the Colonial School District, students are using social media to communicate with peer, pen-pal students in Spain.

It’s important to note the idea of Digital Learning Day is more than just one day—it’s mean to spawn a different way of teaching and learning, every day of the school year.  Digital Learning Day supports a mindset that its harnessing technology is one way to personalize instruction for all students.  Through the work of last year’s Digital Learning Day, the initiative has collected tool-kits from teachers, librarians, and instructional coaches from across the country.  We encourage you to participate in Delaware’s Digital Learning day activities and “think big.”  By leveraging technology, we can provide all students access to high quality, student specific instruction; facilitate collaboration; and give educators more flexibility and control in their classrooms.

Connected Educator Month: It’s Not Too Late to Participate

In its last few weeks, Connected Educator month continues to bring educators together through cutting-edge, high-quality, online learning activities. This week, activities include: “Improving Student Engagement With Classroom Wikis;” “Teq: Webinar: Prezi;” “Campfire Webinar with RAFFI” (Note: Yes folks, this is the Raffi that sings Baby Balooga in the Deep Blue sea); and “Multimedia Essays.” All of these courses are free to anyone.

If you are an educator and haven’t already signed up for a course, I recommend you do. I recently attended a course on MOOCs and I was completely blown away by the personalized learning possibilities for all students. As you listen and interact, note who is teaching the course and reach out to them—Connected Educator month, as its name suggests, is about connecting. Make an effort to “think big” about personalizing instruction in your classrooms, and how these connections can make it happen. Ask questions, especially about implementation—learn about how these ideas have been scaled in Delaware. Open your mind and be inspired. Some of this stuff such as social media in the classroom may sound far-out. Reflect on the concepts, however far-fetched they may seem to you, and think about how they will personalize the learning experience for your students.

As we think about Connected Educator month, we must continue to think about school internet capacity and connectivity. Secretary Arne Duncan recently made this connection in a public announcement on YouTube. Right now, when it comes to federal funding for connectivity, schools are mired in red tape through an antiquated system called E-Rate. The program successfully connected schools in the 1990s, but today serves as barrier to federal funds for public schools supporting modern innovation. In June, President Obama launched the ConnectEd initiative in which he is challenging the FCC to modernize E-Rate. With the recent federal government shutdown, there has been little fanfare about its progress. However, I urge educators to continue monitoring this and offering comment to your federal legislators. Connected Educator Month only can be effective with connected schools