Funding Digital Learning
As states and districts update technology resources, it may seem that the needs overwhelm resources. Before major technology purchases, leaders will want to consider an approach and define a goal that makes sense for the particular region. Some questions to consider include:
- What resources are presently available in schools, and how are they distributed? (For example, are there two computers in every classroom or a dedicated physical computer lab? Or are there mobile laptop/tablet stations?)
- What are the 1-, 3-, and 5-year goals in terms of digital learning?
- What devices do students already bring to school? How do they use those devices?
- How fast are the internal and external connections in schools? How fast must they be to meet students’ and educators’ needs?
- What are the major strengths and challenges this area has in terms of technology?
To provide the best access to students and educators, leading states and districts think comprehensively about all funding and support. Individual situations vary, so the right mix of the approaches below will differ from place to place.
- Leveraging economies of scale: At both the multi-district and multi-state levels, school systems can negotiate more favorable rates with vendors by collaborating with others seeking similar devices/services. Louisiana, Maine, Illinois, North Carolina, among other states have done this successfully.
- Public-private partnerships: Cross-sector collaboration can prove mutually beneficial. What major businesses/industries are in this region? They have a stake in ensuring students graduate digitally literate and may be willing to partner in funding, device donation, connectivity-sharing, or training to advance that purpose.
- Cross-agency coordination: Some states and districts leverage higher education or medical facility resources to boost education access.
- Device refurbishment: Repairing, upgrading, and reusing devices business/community members no longer need can create both an educational opportunity and a source of low-cost devices. In making its transition to online assessment, Delaware used this strategy.
- BYOD and student wireless access: Some states and districts leverage the devices students already own, carefully considering privacy, security, and logistical issues. In other locales, it may be possible to negotiate very low rates for student wireless devices and services, which they could use both in and out of school.
- Strategic decommissioning: What activities or resources are no longer needed? Areas to consider include paper textbooks, copy machines and supplies, fax machines and supplies, copper-line phone service, paper supplies, consumable workbooks, in-person trainings where virtual or peer-to-peer options exist, printing (schedules, grades, announcements etc.), and others, depending on context.
- Leveraging student experience: Where can students themselves serve as technologists, professional developers, and technicians? How can students support educators in advancing their technology-based professional capacity?
Aligning Strategy and Policy
In the context of a vision and out-of-the-box considerations, policymakers should investigate existing and proposed state and local laws and regulations to determine:
- Do any existing laws or regulations need to change in order to reach the goals? For example, are specific kinds of instructional resources mandated in statute that may not align with a digitally-focused strategy? Are students prohibited from using their own devices? Do policies need to change to ensure that virtual courses are accepted for student credit?
- Are there policies that would support advancing digital access? For example, where can blended and personalized learning be incentivized, if that aligns with the local goal?
- How can transparency help? Louisiana used public reports about individual district readiness to highlight areas that are and are not ready for online instruction and assessment.
- Within an SEA or an LEA, do leaders in all major offices understand and support the goals and strategies? Curriculum and instruction, assessment, operations, finance, and other organizational units will need to focus together.
Budgeting and Managing Funds
Education primarily gets funded at the state, local, and federal levels. Fiscal managers should thoroughly consider all funding sources for which technology upgrades are allowable uses of funds.
The U.S. Department has suggested some ways in which funds available under ESEA and IDEA can support the transition to digital learning, including devices, connectivity, and professional development. For more information, read the Dear Colleague Letter: Federal Funding for Technology.
This letter provides some examples of how funds under Titles I through IV of the ESEA, as amended by the ESSA, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), may support the use of technology to improve instruction and student outcomes.
FCC e-Rate Program
The e-Rate program, governed by the FCC, provides discounts to assist most schools and libraries in the United States (and U.S. territories) to obtain affordable telecommunications and Internet access. It is one of four support programs funded through a Universal Service fee and charged to companies that provide interstate and/or international telecommunications services. Recently, the FCC has been working to ensure that e-Rate supports the telecommunications needs that are currently most important to States, districts, and schools. E-Rate provides support in the form of discounts for telecommunications products and services – schools receive discounts of 20%-90% compared to regular fees, with the degree of discount depending on the level of poverty and the urban/rural status of the population a school serves. Eligible schools, school districts and libraries may apply individually or as part of a consortium.
Some states, such as Maine, Delaware, and Idaho have made substantial state-level commitments and provided numerous devices and connectivity boosts directly. Other states, such as Oklahoma and Indiana, have required particular levels of digital access, such as for assessment, and relied primarily on local districts to determine the best strategies to reach the goal.
Generally, local funds are the most flexible with regard to allowable uses. Supply and equipment allocations can often fund digital resources.
- Federal grants from various agencies are listed at www.grants.gov.
- State and local grant opportunities can often be identified by legislative offices.
- Micro-funding through school- and classroom-specific grants can yield substantial results. Often donors are willing to fund projects whose impact they can directly observe. Such organizations as Donors Choose, Class Wish, and Adopt-a-Classroom facilitate individual donations.