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Tech Industry

For the US connected classroom, a leap forward

Commentary: Cisco's John Chambers and former FCC chief Julius Genachowski applaud the FCC's funding boost for expanded broadband in schools, calling it a big win for modern digital learning.

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Education has been slow to harness the power of technology, but the FCC's recent action will change that, say John Chambers and Julius Genachowski. DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

Wi-Fi, for many of us, has become integrated into every facet of our lives -- at home, at work and at the coffee shop. But one place that should have lightning-fast Internet access too often doesn't: our children's classrooms. In fact, 63 percent of America's public schools -- totaling over 40 million students -- don't have broadband connections capable of taking advantage of modern digital learning. Every classroom and every student in America should have wireless high-speed access to the Internet.

There's some good news on this front: last week, the Federal Communications Commission took a giant leap toward that goal. The agency reformed the vital but aging "E-Rate" program and added about $1.5 billion per year to close broadband gaps in schools and libraries across the nation, a key part of President Obama's ConnectEd initiative.

Though the vote was accompanied by spirited debate about an increase in funding, the FCC landed the issue in a smart place. This is by no means the end of the story, however. It's the beginning of the next chapter of harnessing technology to improve education in the United States.

Why is broadband connectivity to schools so important? For the same reasons broadband connectivity is important everywhere. Broadband-based technologies are transforming every sector of our economy and landscape -- yes, with some disruption -- but ultimately with the creation of real value for people around the world. Education has significantly lagged this technology transformation, particularly K-12 education. The FCC's action will change that.

Broadband will be the key platform that will allow the widespread use of amazing innovation around educational content that many talented teachers and entrepreneurs are already developing and using. Some of these technologies enable distance learning, giving students in rural communities access to specialized or advanced classes not available in their hometowns. Others use cutting-edge software and data analytics to personalize learning while multiplying teachers' impact.

This is particularly important at a time when our nation faces a major shortfall in the number of students needed to meet the demand for careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) projected to be 1.2 million in 2018. The new programs will spark students' interest in STEM; classrooms will be transformed; wireless broadband-based technologies will help teachers turn their classrooms into homes of discovery, invention and exploration and prepare students for careers in the Internet of Everything economy. What will happen next will be even more amazing.

This isn't just theory. Some leading school systems are already proving the educational efficacy of digital learning. Mooresville School District in North Carolina, for instance, invested in wireless networking, digital devices and digital textbooks. As a result, individual students showed 20 percent to 40 percent improvement in reading, math and science test scores.

Moreover, connecting students and teachers to broadband is table stakes in our flat, interconnected global economy. It's essential for creating new jobs in the US, developing an educated workforce that can fill those jobs, preserving the US as the world's leading innovation country and powering US global competitiveness.

The FCC was right to act -- without broadband connectivity in schools and classrooms, the dream of harnessing technology to improve education would remain just that: a dream.

Looking ahead

Here's what we think should happen next:

First, the FCC's modernized and expanded E-Rate program needs to be implemented quickly and effectively. Broadband infrastructure is the foundational step, and the FCC, schools and the private sector should work together to put broadband upgrades in schools on the fast track.

Second, schools need to understand how to best deploy devices and educational content and applications. We've gone from a world of limited digital learning applications to a near-glut of choices. Schools need the data and tools to navigate the new landscape. One idea is a digital warehouse of best practices, so that schools can learn from what works at other schools.

Third, we need to take seriously the need for teacher training and professional development. This is another area where technology can be part of the solution: digital learning tools to help teachers learn how to best use the new devices and applications. And we should always be clear that this is not about displacing teachers, but about empowering them. Teachers will be the ones to identify the best blend of learning -- networked, personalized, connected, accessible, screen or no screen.

As policymakers increasingly recognize, technology in education isn't just about broadband connectivity; it's about creating an ecosystem that includes connectivity, devices, content and teacher training. The FCC's action last week has created an opportunity that should be seized and built upon. With the help of a reformed and expanded E-Rate program, the public and private sectors can put the infrastructure in place to ensure that our children get the world's best education.