Society and Culture, Education

What’s up with that $750 million corporate donation to Obama’s ed-tech plan?

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This week saw two high-profile announcements regarding the future of technology in schools. The pair of speeches, one from President Obama and one from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, followed last week’s State of the Union when the president doubled down on his commitment to expand high-speed internet access to more schools.

On Tuesday, at Buck Lodge Middle School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Obama outlined new developments in his ConnectED plan to ensure “every child has the access to the technology that they can use to help them learn.” The core of his speech was his announcement that seven major corporations had donated $750 million-worth of products, programs, and services towards the effort. A summary of these contributions is illustrated in the table below:






$100 million in broadband services over three years for middle school students


Free wireless for up to 50,000 low-income high school students over the next four years, can be used both at school and at home (valued at $100 million)

Hardware & Software


$100 million in iPads, MacBooks, and “other products”


Discount for Windows operating system and 12 million free copies of Office to “qualifying institutions”


O’Reilly Media

(with Safari Books Online)

$100 million worth of online technology books on subjects like programming and coding


Free 3D design software for every high school in the country, valued at over $250 million



Expand Innovative Learning Schools (professional development for STEM teachers) and Innovative App Challenge (student app creation competition in which schools can win money for STEM) programs


Give away  IT Academy program and training for “roughly 2000 at-risk designated schools,” with $1 million to cover its certification exams

Professional Development

Verizon, Apple, and AT&T

Will offer professional development services

Note that while the ConnectED buzz has centered on Obama’s goal to connect 99% of students to high speed broadband, most of these contributions don’t actually provide Internet access. In fact, four of the seven groups donated services oriented towards enhancing STEM education.

While this unveiling came with great fanfare, we haven’t yet heard many details on what it means for real life (admittedly not unusual for sweeping presidential speeches). Here are three of the many remaining questions for schools, teachers, and parents:

How will distribution work? Which schools will be on the receiving end of these contributions? Some companies indicated particular beneficiaries, but without much specificity (e.g. AT&T is targeting middle school students while Microsoft will give free copies of Office to “qualifying institutions”). Who will be responsible for distributing devices? Will there be additional costs associated? When will this happen? How many schools will benefit?

What will the offered professional development entail? “Professional development”—a phrase that can mean many things to educators—is a key pillar of ConnectEd. Obama said, “We want every teacher to understand from soup to nuts how you can potentially use this technology,” but we still don’t know exactly what kind of professional development will be provided by Verizon, Apple, and AT&T. Are these companies well equipped to provide such training? How useful will this be for teachers, who not only need to know how to find the “Power On” button, but also need guidance on how to use new technologies to better their practice?

Are these devices the “right” ones for schools? This one is of utmost importance for administrators. By all accounts, integrating technology into schools is a process that takes lots of time and smart planning (remember the LAUSD iPad debacle?)—even more so if you want to pursue innovative models like blended learning. What’s more, as Christopher Lehmann, the principal of Philadelphia’s Science and Leadership Academy, explained in this Education Week piece, there are important differences between devices when it comes to their educational utility, and each school’s needs will be different. Purchasing decisions are becoming more important than ever for schools in the digital age. So, while free devices might ease the financial burden, they can usher in other tough questions. Can we be sure that the tablet du jour will be a blessing to those classrooms they enter?

Obama touted this development as mutually beneficial for schools and corporations. Indeed, increased availability of the services and products mentioned above is likely to be a good thing. But too often we’ve seen half-baked ideas like these that schools and districts are, ultimately, left to figure out. Additional details on the plan’s rollout will be essential to determining whether these investments will provide their promised benefits for teachers and kids.

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