A week after President Barack Obama called for 99 percent of American students to be connected to high-speed Internet within five years, an independent panel that spent the past year reviewing the lack of technology in U.S. schools says the wiring can be done even sooner.
The LEAD Commission is finalizing a five-point plan that it says will bring digital learning to schools by 2016. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the panel's blueprint on Wednesday; the full plan is expected to be formally released in the coming weeks.
The commission was created in March 2012 to research the state of technology in U.S. schools and figure out how to speed the introduction of technology in classrooms. The president of Columbia University and a former U.S. education secretary are among the panel's four co-chairmen.
Last week, Obama visited a Mooresville, N.C., middle school to see how students do their work exclusively on laptops. He also called on the Federal Communications Commission to use a program that pays for Internet access in schools and libraries through a surcharge on telephone bills to meet his goal of connecting students to super-fast Internet within five years.
"In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn't we have it in our schools?" Obama said.
Most U.S. schools have Internet access, but the connections don't have enough capacity or are slow, according to the blueprint.
Like the president, the commission calls for the FCC to update its E-Rate program to pay to connect schools to high-speed Internet. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the agency could start the process of updating the program as soon as this summer.
Jim Steyer, one of the LEAD Commission's chairmen, said it would cost at least $6 billion to wire schools.
The panel will call for a public-private initiative to put laptops, tablets and other devices into the hands of all students by 2020, beginning with middle school students and making sure that low-income students and those who attend schools in poorly funded districts are included. Money that is no longer being spent to buy printed textbooks, as is the case in Mooresville, could be redirected to help pay for the devices.
The commission's other recommendations include:
—Speeding up the adoption of digital curricula, including by creating an independent certification program to identify approved, high-quality programs.
—Highlighting the work of model schools, such as in Mooresville, to encourage other schools.
—Spending more money to train teachers to use digital curricula and other technologies.
The commission was tasked by the Education Department and the FCC with coming up with a roadmap to move the U.S. education system toward digital learning to help improve student performance as well as help level the playing field with other countries, such as South Korea, where all classrooms have high-speed Internet and printed textbooks are being phased out in the coming years.
Besides Steyer, who teaches at Stanford University and is CEO of Common Sense Media, the panel's three other chairmen are Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, former U.S. education secretary Margaret Spellings and Jim Coulter, co-founder of TPG Capital, a private equity firm.
Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush, said in an interview that the commission is trying to convey through its report that the proposed transformation of the U.S. education system "is possible and it is possible to do it in the relative near term."
Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, said the administration is "absolutely committed" to meeting Obama's goal.
"If we don't act, we won't make the kind of progress our students deserve," he said in a statement.
Mignon Clyburn, acting FCC chairwoman, said the agency looks forward to considering the panel's recommendations.
"Ensuring that all America's students and teachers have the tools they need to compete in the 21st century remains a critical priority," she said in a statement.
LEAD Commission: http://www.leadcommission.org
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