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Wireless Broadband Applications in Education: Forging Partnerships and Looking Ahead

Remarks Delivered at the Federal Communications Commission's Symposium, "Exploring the Educational Power of Broadband"
Washington, DC
October 6, 2004

Anthony G. Wilhelm, Ph.D.,
Director, Technology Opportunities Program,
National Telecommunications and Information Administration,
U.S. Department of Commerce

Since the topic of our panel is "forging alliances and looking ahead," I wanted to talk about two dimensions of the Technology Opportunities Program, or TOP, that I think shed light on these challenges. First, I want to touch on how we at TOP encourage partnerships. Second, I'll say a few words about the promise of wireless broadband to enhance educational development. I'll highlight a few recent grants we've made in this arena that underscore our commitment to what Bob Martin so eloquently describes as "a new learning society for the 21st century."

Just to explain briefly what the Technology Opportunities Program is. We are a competitive grant program in which nonprofit organizations and public institutions submit proposals once a year that are evaluated by outside expert reviewers. From this pool, based on reviewer scores and published selection factors, we select about five percent of the applications for funding. These are the very best projects in demonstrating how advanced information and telecommunications technologies can deliver education, health, and public information and services in innovative ways. Our grant round just completed focused on encouraging wireless broadband demonstration projects, some focusing on enhancing educational opportunity. I'll talk more about that in a moment.

Back to our theme of "forming alliances." First, I'll explain how and why we encourage partnerships and alliance building. The "why" question is very straightforward: We encourage collaboration, because our decade-long experience tells us that projects having robust public and private partners last longer and are more successful in meeting their goals.

We just funded a project to provide educational enrichment for high school students at risk of dropping out. To tackle this challenge successfully, partnership is essential. The grantee is a national association representing historically black colleges and universities, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO). NAFEO is the catalyst. NAFEO is partnering with two HBCU's in the Hampton Roads community, Norfolk State University and Hampton University. The HBCUs are building wireless clouds to provide high-speed connectivity to neighborhoods surrounding the two campuses.

The young people participating in the project will be outfitted with wireless laptop computers and high-speed connections to access educational materials and virtual conferencing spaces. A great deal of mentoring is involved. Partnerships with local faith-based organizations have been established, since you can't really address academic performance unless a young person's social and emotional needs are also met. Mentoring is conducted face to face, and is never more than the click of a mouse away in virtual spaces. Importantly the project also involves industry partners as well as technical teams at the college and university who are building the wireless network so that educational materials and supportive adults can be reached anytime and anywhere within the community. So partnerships are critical, especially when you are dealing with underserved populations. Each of the partners in this project is essential. With the technical team and industry expertise on board, there is a higher likelihood that the network will be available. And with the faith-based partners, there is a greater likelihood that the students will be committed to the enterprise. Collaboration is clearly critical to meeting the need. And good collaboration makes success more likely.

The "how" question is a little more challenging. Nobody said partnership was easy. But if it's encouraged and rewarded, then organizations do rise to the challenge. TOP requires a 50 percent cost sharing, which means that applicants must seek out partners who will provide in-kind and financial support. Of the 27 projects we funded this year, 15 grant winners had technology firms as partners. And total non-federal matching contributions from grantee partners totaled $16.9 million. We score proposals in no small measure on the strength of their partnerships, which helps get beyond zero-sum thinking when it comes to organizations applying for public and private grants.

It's also critical to encourage organizations to break down the silos and treat learning as a seamless 24/7, cradle-to-grave experience. So the projects I'll talk about all enrich and envelop formal education to ensure that learning happens everywhere and that powerful tools are in the learner's hands to take control of his or her own learning experience and to develop the skills needed to find gainful employment in an information-based economy.

So in encouraging demonstration projects to expand economic opportunity, broaden health care delivery, and enhance public services, TOP looks very closely at what it takes to sustain projects. And we are proud that on average 80 percent of projects funded since 1994 are at or near full operation after 3 years. In the case of two-thirds of our grants, they have actually expanded their operations. There's no magic bullet for this, but we've yet to fund an organization which thought the best strategy for success was in going it alone.

The second theme of this panel is "looking ahead." To that end I want to spend a few minutes talking about how wireless broadband technologies are already addressing some of the challenges outlined in Bob Martin's remarks. And what's tremendously exciting is that we've only witnessed the tip of the iceberg in harnessing the educational potential of wireless.

Through our grant-making at TOP, we encourage nonprofit organizations and public institutions to take risks with advanced telecommunications and information technologies. Just to give you a sense of our commitment, in our latest grant round (awards announced on Monday), we devoted three-quarters of the $14.4 million in grant funds to applications harnessing broadband's potential to address pressing problems. These projects include demonstrations of Internet2 capability, Broadband over Power Lines and emerging wireless standards. So we operate like public seed or venture funds in arenas that complement and support what the private sector is doing.

It's worth noting at the outset-and this is not insignificant-that the Technology Opportunities Program focuses its grant-making on spurring demand for advanced information and telecommunication technologies and, importantly, applications and services that depend on these (broadband) technologies, such as Voice over Internet Protocol. As I said earlier, in our 2004 grant round we gave priority to nonprofit organizations and public institutions which are pioneering new applications of wireless broadband, including experimenting with promising new market entrants, such as wireless technologies and Broadband over Power Lines.

The demand is definitely there in communities across the country, in every city and rural hamlet. This past year demand outstripped the supply of funding we had by a factor of 20. Communities know what's at stake in not having these technologies and understand technology's potential to enable new approaches to be tried. And that's exactly what we're talking about here. Broadband technologies provide opportunity to do things differently-and test whether they work. That's really what we're tasked to do, so we complement and leverage the very significant and essential programs in other agencies, including the E-rate program, that are largely infrastructure initiatives.

Just to underscore this virtue of demand creation, one project we funded in 2003, St. Louis Wizkids, is a project where a community center in a very deprived community just north of downtown St. Louis (5th Ward Neighborhood) is working with a cohort of students who are reading well below grade level. Addressing this problem is important because we know that reading proficiency is highly correlated with dropout rates. The social stigma of not reading well — or at all — is great.

To address this problem, the Youth and Family Center provides high-speed wireless connectivity in the home. With wireless technology, young people are accessing educational content in a private space to address shame and stigma issues. What the project leaders have found since they installed the laptops is that students are using them to work on assignments, improve their reading, and communicate with mentors and peers about their work. One student actually emailed her mentor in excitement, completing her first homework assignment done on a computer and with the aid of high-speed Internet to research an assignment for her honors world literature class. Turns out, other members of the family are also jockeying for computer time. The Wizkids approach is so innovative, promising, and, frankly, inspiring, that the executive director, Sue Beckwith, was invited to speak at a post-conference workshop, following on the heels of the St. Louis White House Regional Conference on Faith and Community-Based Initiatives. One negative finding has been documented, however.

When it comes to creating demand for services, wireless tools are great because they put the learner in charge of his or her own learning. With the St. Louis Wizkids project, moreover, the project itself is youth-directed. Youth were involved in choosing the educational materials they would use. They also work in teams to make raps using the computer, develop web portals, and perform digital storytelling to build their fluency with technology based on interests they already have. With the wireless tools, they are able to work where they want, when they want, at their own pace, in teams and by themselves.

The final project I wanted to touch on was also funded last year. It's called Pier Wisconsin in which TOP equipped the Denis Sullivan, a 19th century schooner that operates with a 21st century mission: to inspire people of all ages, mostly young people, to explore our freshwater world. The ship is outfitted with digital satellite communications technology and 802.11 wireless capability for video broadcasting. School classes and the general public alike sign up to go out on the boat which serves as a floating classroom. Participants take water readings and learn about water quality. What they embrace through their shipboard experience is a fondness for experiential learning. Real-time water data and curriculum are also available on a public website for public instruction and community action to preserve the Great Lakes watershed, home to 33 million people and 20 percent of the world's drinkable water.

What we've witnessed over a decade of grant-making is that communities will continue to innovate and experiment with new technologies to address ongoing educational challenges. Broadband, especially wireless broadband, opens the door to new opportunities in education. Continued technological innovation will contribute significantly to our Nation remaining the most highly educated and productive in the world.

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