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ConnectED: Delivering the Future of Learning

Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling discusses transforming education through technology.

Yesterday I spoke at an exciting event focused on transforming education through technology, in particular the President’s ConnectED Initiative he announced in June.  Over the last three months, we have heard an outpouring of support for ConnectED and its vision to give every student and teacher the benefits of high-speed broadband, digital devices, and proven educational software.

ConnectED must be seen as so much more than just about wires, or wireless, or even the coolest new gadgets. The power of ConnectED is in what it can mean for the lives, learning, and educational future of our students — regardless of the accident of their birth, the education or income of their parents, or the zip code of their home. The end goal is not connectivity for its own sake: it is about allowing all students to have a more robust, individualized, and ambitious educational experience that better prepares them to be citizens, parents, and, of course, the skilled workers of the future.

Yet what is painfully clear – and what compels the need for ConnectED – is that a vision of students on individualized learning devices, getting the most up-to-date content, and reaping the benefits of stronger assessment tools is not possible in the majority of classrooms around the country today. When it comes to connectivity, our schools are at the back of the pack. Connections are hundreds of times slower than our homes, our workplaces, and most of all, the classrooms of our top economic competitors.  The President said it best: “in a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools?”  

ConnectED can address this, and pay huge dividends to the nation.  Let me highlight two ways how.

First, we have to ask ourselves: if technology has changed industry after industry across our economy, why not education?  Here is part of the answer: If only a fortunate few schools have high-speed broadband, there is only a limited market for top-notch digital learning. This means that our nation’s leading technology and educational content companies may not see a market of the scale to justify major investments in affordable individualized learning devices and interactive educational content for students. This means individual learning devices remain out of reach, discouraging school districts – or states that could have significant bargaining power – from considering a learning device on each desk as an affordable option, particularly in tight times.

This is the classic vicious cycle, with one key factor – high-speed infrastructure – holding all of it back. But we can turn this negative cycle to a positive one for our children. ConnectED can be a tipping point as connecting schools to high-speed Internet and installing fast wireless connections within them is the precursor to this whole market, which is why a federal investment in infrastructure can have a substantial multiplier effect. With the right incentives, we know we are going to see low-price devices available at scale, and teachers eager and prepared to use them. We know we will see an explosion of educational content, and of empirical data that will help districts and teachers know “what works.”  We are going to help states and districts support their teachers as they begin to make use of these new digital tools and incorporate them into their classroom instruction. And we are confident that states are going to make those investments. 

Second, and what excites me most about the President’s vision of connected classrooms is the full meaning of what it can mean for all young people reaching their potential.  The ConnectED vision can help keep more of our children, from all walks of life, learning and living together. Educators often face the dilemma of how to let their more advanced students learn at an accelerated pace without distinguishing or separating their students in a way that can send negative messages that limit their aspirations or self-esteem or sense that they can be gifted. We all know that we should be sending all of our young people the message that the sky is the limit. ConnectED offers educators the chance to avoid this dilemma: when all students in a classroom are equipped with individual devices and adaptable digital content, teachers can let the student who is excelling to continue going further — and give the struggling student the chance to keep building fundamentals — even as they sit next to each other.  

We know that part of inequality is about social networks – and the signals we send our young people at an early age. The ConnectED vision shows that technology can, instead of increasing divides, help close them by keeping students from all backgrounds learning together and playing together. The ConnectED promise is the kind of personalized instruction that can eradicate negative forms of tracking – keeping kids at varying levels of mastery in the same room, all being challenged and all learning from one another. The result would improve everyone’s outcome, while avoiding stigmatization or hurting the aspirations of young people who are less prepared.

The ConnectED vision also allows students who are struggling to keep trying without feeling embarrassed or ashamed in front of their peers. When students don’t ask for help, they fall behind.  That can cascade to other subjects, and finally, to life and career.  My mother was a teacher for 40 years, and founded the very successful Family Literacy Institute in Ann Arbor for students who were two grades behind in reading. One of her insights was to allow students to get tutoring in small offices behind closed doors so that they did not feel embarrassed in front of their friends.  But not everyone can find a building with multiple small offices. The ConnectED vision can allow the student struggling with Geometry to try and try again on his or her learning devices without classmates knowing, while allowing teachers to target help to the students who need it most.  Individualized learning takes technology, and technology can take the fear out of learning in a group setting. As the New York Times explained in detail about the student experience in Mooresville, "Three desks away, a girl was struggling with basic multiplication – only 29 percent right, her screen said – and Ms. Holsinger knelt beside her to assist. Curiosity was fed and embarrassment avoided, as teacher connected with student through emotion far more than Wi-Fi."

These are exciting prospects, and the President is firmly committed to realizing them through ConnectED — for the future of education, the future of the economy, and the future of our national competitiveness.  This program will make a real difference for students, their families and their communities.

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