Looking Back on Three Years of the ConnectED Initiative: Did It Deliver?

Looking Back on Three Years of the ConnectED Initiative: Did It Deliver?

Back in late 2013, Barack Obama and the White House launched the ConnectED Initiative, an effort to bring almost $2 billion worth of high-quality broadband, technology and professional development to schools and districts across the U.S. Three years later, the government is taking a look at the progress of the program—after a somewhat rocky start.

In February of 2014, Obama rounded up technology donations worth more than a $1 billion from U.S. corporations, from Apple to Adobe. As EdSurge reported, to be part of the initiative, companies “had to commit to providing goods or services worth at least $100 million.” But as Betsy Corcoran outlined in her July 2014 article, some companies had yet to deliver on their promise of clearly outlining how educators could apply for those products and services. “If schools don’t know when they can apply, they can’t incorporate these materials into significant instruction plans,” Corcoran wrote. “That makes the donations ‘nice to have’—but sadly limits the impact that they have on students and learning.”

After some clarifications, the White House is now revealing both how and what companies have delivered on their ConnectED promises, as well as the numbers around ConnectED’s success.

Did companies fully deliver on their ConnectED promises?

The answer to that question: Perhaps. According to the fact sheet that the White House recently released, here’s what we know:

  • Adobe has delivered creativity and e-learning software to over 950,000 students and teachers at more than 1,450 schools and launched more than 20 district-wide Adobe & ConnectED programs.
  • Apple provided “help” in the form of iPads and other Apple hardware to 114 low-income schools in 29 states.
  • Autodesk provided more than 335,000 students and educators from secondary schools with professional software and services for use in classrooms, labs, and at home.
  • Esri has granted 200,000 students access to its professional online GIS mapping software for doing projects.
  • Microsoft 1) provided over 3 million students with free access to Office 365 in K-12 schools across the U.S., 2) discounted the price of its Windows operating system for new school-purchased devices, and 3) enrolled 700 additional schools in its IT Academy program.
  • Prezi gave more than 286,000 Prezi Pro licenses to students and staff.
  • Verizon originally committed $100 million in cash and “in-kind commitments” to boost student achievement in STEM over three years. There’s no clear indication of whether they hit that dollar amount. Instead, the company claims it “has reached nearly 300,000 students across all 50 states and the District of Columbia with ConnectED-inspired programs that provide technology and STEM education.”

Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to tell whether or not each participating company lived up to the full terms of the promises it made.

Take Adobe, for example. Whether or not it hit the $300 million worth of software and professional services the company originally promised is unknown; do the math, and Adobe would’ve only reached $300 million if it donated an average of $200,000 worth of materials to each ones of those 1,450 schools over the two years. Or in the case of Apple, that $100-million promise, spread amongst 114 schools, comes out to a little less than $1-million per school. Hardware does usually cost more, but did the full cost of Apple’s donations actually reach the company’s commitment?

Some companies, however, have said that if they haven’t yet met their goal, they will continue to distribute until that happens. Prezi is one of those organizations: the original commitment was to provide four-year Prezi EDU Pro licenses (each worth about $240) to low-income schools of about $100 million in total. The company is about 60% of the way there, and says it will continue to distribute licenses into 2017.

Are all U.S. districts fully WiFi- and tech-equipped?

While in attendance at the White House’s Symposium for Innovative PreK-12 Edtech last week, Jeff Zients, Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, said, "We've already connected more than 20 million students to high-speed internet in the classroom, putting us on track to meet the President's goal of having 99 percent of students connected to broadband by 2018.”

The government credits the FCC and the E-rate program with some of this success. Though Tom Wheeler will step down as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on next year’s inauguration day (Jan. 17), he can count securing a $1.5 billion boost for E-Rate, the federal program that subsidizes broadband initiatives, amongst his accomplishments.

But others have also played roles, including Sprint. According to the White House fact sheet, Sprint has “approved 53,432 lines of free wireless service for schools, of which 21,747 lines in 17 states are deployed thus far.” In October 2016, Sprint also announced its 1 Million Project, providing up to 1 million lines of free broadband service and a free device over a four-year period to low-income high school students who lack internet access at home. Sprint is currently accepting applications for this project, which are due by March 31, 2017.

The future of ConnectED: Exactly how much play should and does the government have in bringing edtech to K-12?

Over the past few years, the government has made several moves in other edtech spaces, mostly related to open educational resources (OERs) and evangelizing innovation from the top-down. In the digital content space, there are currently 100 #GoOpen Districts from 29 states that have committed to “replace at least one textbook with openly licensed educational resources within a year,” meaning free resources that anyone can copy, use, adapt and reshare. Simultaneously, 19 states have launched statewide #GoOpen initiatives to support districts as they expand their use of high-quality openly licensed educational resources, including Arizona, Michigan and Tennessee. And to provide more digital content beyond OERs, the government launched the Open eBooks app back in February 2016.

As far as the “evangelization” of edtech, since the launch of the Future Ready initiative back in 2014, the DOE reports that more than 3,100 district superintendents have signed the Future Ready District Pledge.

As evidenced by the ConnectED company commitments listed above, making a promise and actually delivering on it aren’t always one and the same. But according to Zients, the White House isn’t concerned that initiatives like #GoOpen and Future Ready, inherently dependent on the commitments of educators, will fall short of actually sparking change.

”ConnectED has the power to improve education,” he said, “and we're seeing it in action across the country."

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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