FCC Commissioner to Tech Industry: It’s Time to Reinvent Textbooks, Teaching

On the heels of its Dec. 19 decision to raise Internet connectivity funding for schools by $1.5 billion, the Federal Communications Commission urged Silicon Valley to couple funding with innovative educational material.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel spoke to the audience of tech entrepreneurs at Airbnb’s San Francisco headquarters on Jan. 8, highlighting the FCC’s recent efforts and encouraging the digital disruption within teaching and the textbook industry. The event was hosted by the tech advocacy group CALinnovates.

“In the rest of the world, we have an infinite array of digital tools to change our civic and commercial lives. Yet somehow we’ve put up some barriers at the school doors,” Rosenworcel said. “It’s time we started inviting them in and wrestling with them and doing some good things.”

Rosenworcel described the textbook industry as “unimaginative,” and as a segment of suppliers ripe for change. As a market estimated at $17 billion and with price increases in the last decade at 800 percent, Rosenworcel said the industry’s services burden educators and students alike — average school districts only able to afford textbook purchases every seven to 10 years.

“I just think it’s crazy if we keep on doing what we’ve done before because the world and the job opportunities that are out there look remarkably different,” said Rosenworcel.

Citing more statistics to support her call to action, she observed that 50 percent of the jobs in the current economy require some level of digital skills. Based on trends, this estimation will grow to 77 percent in the next decade.

In response, she said textbooks might be supplanted with digital counterparts. Software, online platforms or apps that do more than just present the facts about a subject, but engage students on an interactive level. Astronomy might have virtual tours of the universe, biology an exploration of cell structure, and other curriculums similarly enhanced through digital devices and applications.

Praise was also given for digital textbooks or sites that not only provide knowledge, but also hold students accountable to demonstrate their education with games, tests and other interactive assignments. Within the tech sector, tech education startups like Codecademy, a free platform that teaches coding in a variety of languages, and paid subscription services like Treehouse, that allow students to design their own coding curriculum and produce their own projects, are just a few innovative examples.

“If we can think about digitization in a way that makes kids not just consumers of educational content but creators, I think we’re going to develop a generation of students who are going to better serve our economy and better serve our world,” Rosenworcel said.

Representing ClassDojo, a tech startup that assists teachers to incentivize learning behaviors, Co-founder Sam Chaudhary joined the discussion to offer a perspective about the new shift for innovation in schools.

“We’ve always thought the job of schools is to deliver academic content — and that’s a really, really important job,” Chaudhary said. “But when we think of the future — and we think of the knowledge economy that we’re in — just delivering that academic content is not going to be enough. There are actually these other sets of skills that are a part of education that isn’t adequately or systematically addressed in schools.”

His startup ClassDojo — a tool used in 180 countries by 2.4 million teachers, 53 million students and 2.2 million parents — works to offer an online service that lets teachers record students' good and bad behaviors, much in the same way video games reward gamers with digital trophies and icons for accomplishments. Skills like persistence, creativity, curiosity, teamwork and resilience are all rewarded on the platform, but traits are much more difficult to measure and learn -- even though they’re the same traits people are hired for. Technologies like his and others, Chaudhary said, are to be one of the forces pushing education forward.

“I don’t think great technology is about replacing what teachers have been doing, but I think it’s about enabling what teachers are already doing,” Chaudhary said.

To expand Internet connectivity for students, and indirectly widen the reach of tech ed startups like Chaudhary’s, Rosenworcel was among the three Democrat commissioners in December to increase the FCC’s E-rate spending from about $2.4 billion per year to a cap of $3.9 billion — money that will fund Internet and broadband services in schools and libraries across the nation. Despite criticism from fellow commissioners who argued that it was too costly, Rosenworcel said she saw it as the only pragmatic way to ensure all school districts were availed the resources — as opposed to forcing districts to draw from their own resources and piecemeal solutions.

Her vision is that the change will reduce what she likes to call the homework gap -- when students lack an online connection at home to complete homework.

“We know that seven in 10 teachers now assign homework that requires online access. And we also know that roughly one in three households have [internet] broadband access at home," Rosenworcel said. "Where those numbers overlap is where we have the homework gap.”

The E-rate program, the nation’s largest supporting education technology, is likewise hoped to drive the FCC’s long-term high-speed Internet connectivity goals. According to a release from the FCC, approximately 41 percent of rural public schools lack fiber networks that meet modern connectivity targets for digital learning as opposed 31 percent of urban and suburban public schools.

Low income schools are especially disadvantaged when in comes to connection speeds, with only 14 percent qualifying. Additionally, about 40 percent of districts report high up-front capital costs of infrastructure that prevent upgrades.

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