What You Should Know About President Obama’s ConnectED Initiative

It’s been a big week for President Obama with the announcement of his executive action on immigration. This hot-button new policy and the buzz surrounding it have eclipsed many other national policy issues for the moment, so you may not have heard much about what else the President has been up to recently. But as it happens, this was also a notable week for White House involvement in education policy.

On Wednesday, the White House hosted a conference entitled “ConnectED to the Future,” meeting with superintendents, administrators, and educators from more than 100 school districts nationwide.¬†At the conference, the President announced a broadening of his ConnectEd Initiative.

The ConnectED Initiative was originally announced in June 2013 as a plan to bring up-to-date technology to K-12 schools and facilitate its use in the classroom. Specifically, the initiative’s stated goal was bring high-speed Internet to 99% of American public schools by 2017.

In the original announcement, President Obama called on the FCC and corporations to work with him to meet this goal, and in the year and a half since then, there has been a considerable outpouring of support. The FCC and Apple, Microsoft, Spring, and Verizon have all committed to provide broadband access to select districts by 2016. While their pledges will not bring access to the full 99% of students the initiative plans to cover, they will bring the percentage of students with high-speed internet access above the 50% mark (from below 40%).

A number of corporations have also stepped up to provide support in areas related to the initiative’s mission. Adobe and Autodesk are giving free design software to some schools. Esri is providing free cloud-based collaboration software to all public K-12 schools. Prezi is providing professional-grade software for free to K-12 educators, in limited quantities. Microsoft is providing discounts on operating systems and Office software according to districts’ needs. Verizon is providing free online training for teachers; AT&T is providing support programs for tablet-based education in Title I districts. And Apple is providing free iPads – along with software and teacher training for iPad-based lesson design – to some of the poorest school districts in the country.

In his address to the ConnectED to the Future conference, President Obama announced two new partners – edX and Coursera. EdX had already announced free AP programming through its High School Initiative, but now it will be providing free certifications of course completion. These certifications, which serve as class transcripts and are potentially useful assets on college applications, ordinarily cost a fee. EdX will also be bringing out new courses for teacher training and professional development, and again, providing the certifications for these courses free of charge. Coursera, similarly, will be providing free-of-charge certifications for professional development and subject area courses to teachers for the next year.

The partnership with edX and Coursera, along with the teacher training offered by other corporate partners, represents an expansion of the ConnectED Initiative. In addition to focusing on network infrastructure, the initiative is also addressing the teacher training and professional development needed to effectively utilize technology as a tool in the classroom. This broadened focus was incorporated into President Obama’s address and into the Future Ready Pledge which was signed by conference participants and more than a thousand superintendents nationwide.

Of course, in many areas addressed by the initiative, HISD is already ahead of the curve. The 2012 bond provided for $100 million in technology upgrades, to include the high-speed Internet the President wants for all American students. And the HISD PowerUp Initiative is intended to provide laptops to all district high school students by 2016. This goes beyond what the ConnectED Initiative could plausibly accomplish; while President Obama has stated his support for a one-to-one student-computer ratio, ConnectED has only been able to bring in a limited number of laptops and tablets for students.

While some Greater Houston school districts may stand to benefit from several aspects of the ConnectED Initiative, for HISD, the initiative’s increased focus on teacher training is what makes it relevant. Any Houston teacher can take advantage of the free development courses provided by edX and Coursera in order to improve the classroom experience for their students.