The E-Rate Aftermath

What Good is E-Rate Modernization if Schools Can’t Pay for What’s Connected to Broadband?

The dust is starting to settle from the recent changes to the federal E-Rate program. Schools are actively pursuing increases to bandwidth by filing their Form 471s before next week.

Bandwidth is valuable, but bandwidth without safe communication and collaboration tools—which accounted for less than 5% of E-Rate funds—drastically diminishes the value of increased connection speeds.

Schools that were once able to choose the right communication and collaboration tools for their teachers and students are turning to free products, preventing them from using the products that they clearly prized.

Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen many situations where districts purchased robust network solutions, only to then underutilize them. While providing E-Rate applicants with more megabits per second is an important goal, additional bandwidth will eventually be wasted as schools lack access to the tools that truly add value to that new bandwidth.

Schools paid their share without hesitation because they saw value. There’s value in buying the best helmets for your football team. When budget cuts come, there’s never a debate to switch to cheaper headgear.

In the months since E-Rate reform was announced, we’ve been busy talking to our customers about how they can continue to work with us. The majority of them are telling us that, despite the changes, it’s imperative that they continue to put their students’ safety first. These are three main reasons they give us.

1. Solutions not built for K-12

School districts are organized very differently than businesses and the communication and collaboration tools that schools use should account for those differences.

For instance, business tools only need to focus on employer-employee relationships and rarely have a reason to open up or shut down online communication and collaboration between individual employees, groups of employees, or the employer and its employees. School districts have complex organizational structures and user relationships that include multiple school buildings, classes, activity groups and teacher-student relationships.

I love this quote from Sarah McManus, a middle school teacher in Tyler Area, Texas, who said via Twitter, “Finally digging into Google Classroom. Confirmed my belief that no teachers were a part of the design process.” Exactly, Sarah. Exactly.

2. CIPA compliance

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires that schools address the safety and security of minors when using email, chat rooms and other forms of direct online communication. The free tools available are incapable of providing the level of safety and security that students need and that CIPA requires.

3. Structure and context

Both structure and context must shape connectivity. Consuming content is just a part of learning. Today, learning is about collaboration and problem-solving and tools that focus on these important parts of education are critical to that goal. These same tools make student safety paramount while helping kids learn and saving teachers time.

Reducing the amount of disparate technology will lead to quicker adoption by both educators and students. Creating more structure through account provisioning and single sign-on costs money. Account provisioning is complicated and requires significant technical skills that most schools and school district IT departments lack. Using technology without the ability to use them all properly renders them ineffective.

We support the mission of the E-Rate program: to connect all of America’s schools and libraries to the best online resources and to facilitate modern learning through improved communications and collaboration. Sometimes, however, the best things in life are not free.