Your mobile phone bill is sparking an edtech renaissance

Have you ever noticed that 90 cent charge at the bottom of your phone bill? Little did you know, that is the key to fueling a renaissance in education technology.

When edtech made its debut in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the initial fanfare quickly gave way to a decade of struggle in the edtech industry. This dip occurred largely because schools did not have the infrastructure it takes to support a classroom full of students and high-content apps online. Adoption lagged, and so did funding.

Flash forward to 2013, when a study found that fewer than 20 percent of educators said their school’s connectivity met their needs. Still. The consequences are felt across the country, but especially in rural and low-income communities, where digital tools and resources can help educators level the playing field.

To address the problem head-on, the U.S. Department of Education created ConnectED, a program that aims to fit 99 percent of America’s schools with broadband by 2018.

Enter your phone bill. To make the edtech-fueled program work, the FCC agreed to add an additional $1.5 billion to E-Rate, a decades old federal program that subsidizes telecommunications services for schools and libraries through monthly contributions from consumers’ telephone bills. They also made crucial moves to modernize it, directing funds from legacy allocations like fax machines and landlines to the more modern tech infrastructure.

Now, about 90 cents from your monthly cellphone bill goes into a pool that schools and districts tap into to improve broadband and Wi-Fi for better connectivity. These new regulations aimed to bring high-speed Internet to 75 percent of rural schools and an additional 10 million students by the end of 2015 alone.

This an incredibly exciting time to be in education; the possibilities are huge, so we have to get it right.

Why is this fueling an edtech resurgence? With the rise of personal devices, the rapid democratization of education technology at the teacher level and an in-school infrastructure in place, cloud-based software and high-bandwidth apps are becoming available to schools for the first time. Districts can now make the types of technology purchases that will last for the long haul, and deploy them at each of their schools without connectivity becoming an issue.

IDC predicts that K-12 IT spending will hit $4.7 billion in 2015, with significant budget going to student software, applications and computer upgrades. Subsequently, edtech investment is expected to reach $2 billion this year, a staggering increase from the $385 million invested in the space in 2009. Many of the newly funded companies have a strong play in K-12.

Connectivity is the beginning, not the end

Teaching is a difficult job, and there is no silver bullet. But faced with overcrowded classrooms and increased pressure to raise performance, educators need better tools to give students the personalized instruction they need — especially if their classrooms include a broad range of intellectual and developmental needs.

With E-Rate helping build better infrastructure, schools can successfully implement the type of technology that enables educators to teach beyond the four walls of the classroom. Connectivity enables access to video content, collaboration with students in other parts of the country or world and blended learning that mixes digital content with traditional textbooks.

Technology infrastructure is a must-have. Those 90 cents are vital for this new generation of students. But sufficient Internet access should be considered the first marker in a school’s journey toward better educational outcomes, not the final one.

Teachers don’t just need connectivity, but also devices and software that work together with the infrastructure, so they can access content and deliver learning experiences that engage students. That infrastructure can’t just sit there; it needs to be the foundation for facilitating collaboration, simplifying assessment, gauging progress and enabling the type of personalized learning that will change a student’s perspective along with their test scores.

For this to become a reality, edtech providers whose products sit on this infrastructure are going to have to become more sophisticated, with more insights without making things harder or more complicated for educators. Taking a cue from the Salesforce playbook, education technology needs a system of learning record that ties everything together. Making point solutions that don’t integrate into a broader platform is a Sisyphean task for edtech.

Raising the spending cap on E-Rate, your 90 cents each month and directing funds toward high-speed Internet connectivity opened the door for a host of new tech-fueled possibilities in the classroom. Further, classroom technology adoption begets even more entrepreneurship and invention in this sector. More students than ever are gaining access to new content and resources; soon, the world’s knowledge will be at their fingertips. This an incredibly exciting time to be in education; the possibilities are huge, so we have to get it right.