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Obama praises educators’ efforts to end digital divide

President Barack Obama recognizes at a White House summit on Wednesday more than 100 superintendents nationwide for being leaders in establishing digital classrooms and improving students' access to high-speed internet. (Jacqueline Lee/Belleville News-Democrat/McClatchy
President Barack Obama recognizes at a White House summit on Wednesday more than 100 superintendents nationwide for being leaders in establishing digital classrooms and improving students' access to high-speed internet. (Jacqueline Lee/Belleville News-Democrat/McClatchy McClatchy

President Barack Obama recognized school superintendents from across the country on Wednesday whose efforts to expand classroom technology mean it no longer takes 20 minutes for a student in rural Alaska to log on to the Internet and that one in a poor district in California can get Wi-Fi near home.

About 110 school leaders attended the National Connected Superintendents Summit on digital learning. The event was part of the administration’s five-year plan, ConnectED, to have 99 percent of the nation’s students connected to high-speed broadband Internet in their schools and libraries.

Less than 40 percent of public schools have high-speed Internet.

“There is no greater gap right now than the digital gap, and if we close that gap then we have the potential to level the playing field for students like nothing we’ve seen before,” Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said in remarks to introduce the president. “This is a game changer.”

School leaders need to be innovative in how they work to eliminate “digital deserts,” which are most evident in counties with low-income schools, Carvalho said. In Miami-Dade, 74 percent of students live at or below the poverty line.

The school district sought partners such as Microsoft and raised $7 million to outfit 350 schools with Wi-Fi access and bump the number of digital devices in the district to more than 150,000.

Schools also need to balance working with a student body that is increasingly “hyper-connected, multi-tasking rapid consumers of information,” Carvalho said. “We knew if we did not not engage with them on their terms, many of them would be lost.”

Obama said it is crucial for schools to bring the world to every child’s fingertips through improved technology, because this generation of students’ digital savvy means they will lose interest in school otherwise.

“In most American schools, teachers cannot use the cutting-edge software and programs that are available today,” Obama said. “They literally don’t have the bandwidth. And even in schools where there is high-speed Internet, so often there aren’t enough computers to go around, so only a small percentage of our classrooms have the 1-to-1 ratio of students to computers or tablets.”

Obama pointed to Superintendent Mary Wegner, of the Sitka School District in Alaska, which is accessible only by train or boat and where it used to take students 20 minutes to log on to the Internet. The students recognized the need for better access and petitioned the school board. Now they have Wi-Fi that allows them to use Skype or FaceTime to learn from experts all over the world.

A bond measure in Coachella, Calif., where every student is on a federal program that provides free or reduced-price lunches, is the reason that each of the district’s 20,000 students has an iPad tablet computer. Darryl Adams, superintendent of Coachella Valley Unified School District, said he also is working with Comcast to provide Internet service to low-income families for $9.95 per month.

Obama applauded such innovative techniques.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said America has to compete with countries such as South Korea, which replaced textbooks with digital content, and Uruguay, where every student is assigned a digital device. But the playing field also has to be leveled within the United States, Duncan said, as he spoke of a North Carolina teen who is the first in his family to go to college.

“The divide between the haves and have-nots cannot be over educational opportunity,” Duncan said.

Funding to expand digital resources in school to promote personalized learning should derive from a reallocation of resources, such as accelerating the shift of about $8 billion spent on textbooks each year to digital content, Duncan said.

Obama announced a partnership on Wednesday with two companies: EdX, which will offer advanced placement-level courses and certification to students for free, and Coursera, which will offer free credentials for district-approved professional development courses to any teacher next year.

The president also stressed the importance of equipping administrators and teachers with the skills to build digital infrastructure and craft lessons on digital platforms. He said ConnectEd will give school leaders a guide on what infrastructure to invest in and how to pay for it. Similarly, teachers will get toolkits with goals and checklists.

The digital school initiatives come after the president announced earlier this month his stance on net neutrality, which regulates Internet service providers so companies cannot intentionally slow down or speed up access for others. It also follows news this week of areas like New York City, which committed to establish community broadband for its residents.

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