I remember 1996 pretty well. Bill Clinton was president. Apple was a near-doomed computer company. We had no idea that Y2K was headed our way. And I had a pager. Yes, I was a “wanna-be cool kid” in middle school, discreetly excusing myself to use the bathroom when I was in fact using the payphone so that I could dial 07734 (that’s code for hello) to another friend’s pager. In 1996, that was important.
Since the last decade of the twentieth century, however, most people have stopped using pagers. Most people, that is, with the exception of some of our nation’s K-12 school administrators. Dumbfounded, you ask: “Pagers? Why do they still have pagers?” Well, the answer is pretty simple. Since 1996, the major source federal funding for education technology, E-Rate, has provided significant subsidies for schools and districts to buy pagers and pager services so that administrators can page one another. And at the same time, E-Rate has not considered wide-spread wireless routers (wi-fi) as an allowable expense (in addition to other modern infrastructure necessities including high speed internet upgrades). Backwards, right? But thanks to some sweeping changes to the backwards E-Rate funding system, the Federal Communications Commission approved a series of broad changes which will phase out pagers and put much more resources and regulations change into wi-fi infrastructure and faster internet.
Last June, President Obama urged the FCC to modernize E-Rate. And last October, I wrote about the importance of educators letting the FCC know, via public comment, about making these reforms. It appears the FCC listened and the timing couldn’t be better. With the unrolling of Smarter Balanced (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the infrastructure changes are necessary to ensure that schools are ready to assess students beyond using a paper and pencil. It renews a federal commitment made almost twenty years ago that all students must have access to high-speed internet, regardless of how rich or poor those students may be.
As E-Rate makes the changes, with an additional $1B funding to maintain and provide for these changes, more Delaware schools will likely apply for funding to make wi-fi upgrades. Presently, Delaware’s school districts rely heavily on the state’s once modern, now aged (circa 1999) infrastructure for internet access. Since many of Delaware’s schools have sporadic wi-fi networks, at best, this could mean an increase in E-Rate subsidized high-speed and wi-fi improvement projects. It could mean increased educational opportunities for students to use new, portable devices such as tablets, laptops, and maybe even their own personal devices. And it will also mean a silencing of the “beep, beep, beep” that come from those pagers.