WASHINGTON, October 13, 2014 - As technology permeates society, students are growing more comfortable with learning in the technology medium. Whether it's organizing tables in Microsoft's Excel, learning design software, or computer programming, there are increasingly fewer excuses to avoid technology. Tech giants like Microsoft, Autodesk, Apple and Prezi are embracing this rapid evolution and helping educators improve digital readiness in the U.S.
The mechanism by which they're doing this is the White House's ConnectED initiative, announced in June 2013, and which aims to complement and enhance the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate program. While E-Rate subsidizes schools' costs for telecom and internet service, ConnectED extends to giving students the tools to adopt 21st century skills free of charge.
Moving Beyond The Textbook
"There's only so much you can learn from a textbook," Rebecca Wong said. Beyond pure academia, there's an entire realm of skills for students to seize. Designing - whether it be movies, skyscrapers, or automobiles - is just one skill Autodesk is promoting.
The 3D design software company has dedicated $250 million to secondary schools in 2014, with plans to continue support in the future. Currently, it has offered software to 3, 300 schools, Wong said. All it takes to start using the software is a quick online registration online.
"Our mission is to help inspire students and empower teachers to imagine, create and design a better world," Wong said. "When you think about the 21st century skills that these students are gonna need in order to succeed in the real world...we really think that the design thinking can play a very strategic role in helping to unlock those problem solving skills, creativity, collaboration, and communications [skills]."
By granting students free access to professional design software, Autodesk helps students become industry-ready.
"It's ultimately a commitment to both education and the next generation of America," Wong added. "It's a commitment also to our customers. [They] tell us it's really hard these days to recruit employees who are fresh from school who have the necessary skills to hit the ground running when they hit the work force. By doing this, it's an extension of our commitment to our customers...that these students will ultimately be professional designers in the industry."
Fostering Long-Term Partners In The Tech Industry
Safari Books Online shares a similar philosophy. The digital library company committed to help its parent company, O'Reilly Media, distribute roughly 2, 000 online books and training videos on computer technology topics to "every student in the country," said Safari CEO Andrew Savikas.
Although Safari normally serves professional and corporate interests, Savikas said there are massive benefits to exposing students to his company's content and brand as they advance in their education.
After all, some of the internet's greatest phenomenon like Tumblr and Facebook were started by innovators who hadn't even left school yet, thanks to access to programming tools at an early age. Imagine then, Savikas said, what students could do with professional resources in their hands.
"We benefit by having a lot of technology companies, a lot of energy, and enthusiasm in growth of the technology sector," Savikas said. "And certainly, helping to spread and foster that among students really helps us to foster the next generation of companies and customers that we look forward to serving ten to 20 years from now."
To date, Safari has launched a pilot program where students can sign up to participate. A larger rollout to all high school students across the country is scheduled for either late August or early September. By January 2015, Savikas said he hopes all K-12 students will be served. Currently, U.S. law requires users of the software to verify they are above age 13, meaning that privacy concerns need to be considered.
The goal is for students to be able to log onto Safari's website and access the entire catalogue of books and videos with just a few clicks.
While Safari's commitment to ConnectED lasts two years, Savikas expressed confidence that support will be revisited and refined in the future.
More Immersive Classrooms
Even classroom lectures benefit from technology. At Montera Middle School in Oakland, California, Prezi ran a case study by offering teachers its cloud-based presentation software.
"One of the most valuable lessons I've taught this year, I actually taught through the Prezi platform," said Courtney Connelly, a Montera teacher in Prezi's case study video. "It was a comparison of classical, medieval and renaissance art, and it was this beautiful moment where [the students were] arguing with each other about 'hey no, it's classical - but no, it's not because of the emotion on the face."
Students became more engaged, Connelly said, adding that it's a sign that classrooms need to catch up with the vast technological knowledge that digital natives have already acquired.
Prezi's software allows teachers to present lectures on a virtual canvas with stimulating visuals. A zooming user interface allows navigation through information with ease.
Prezi's commitment covers $100 million worth of four-year EDU Pro licenses - the highest tier of software available for educators - that are being given to Title I high schools for free.
Cost Savings On The Cloud
Like Autodesk, Prezi's software offerings are cloud-based, freeing schools from the reliance on sophisticated hardware.
"For schools on a limited IT budget, the fact that they have access to free software is a huge chunk off their IT budget that they can spend on other things," Wong said. "That wasn't possible before."
Geographic information software company Esri also committed $1 billion to making its advanced mapping software, running on cloud infrastructure provided by Amazon Web Services, available for free to more than 100, 000 elementary, middle, and high schools in the U.S.
In May 2014, Esri President Jack Dangermond said in a statement: "Geographic Information System technology gives students powerful tools for understanding our planet, and teaches them to become problem solvers...preparing [them] for further education and expanding career opportunities in fields that can help and better manage our world, build better lives for more people, and design a better future."
Making Tech More Than Just An Elective
Acquainting students with technology is especially important since the future economy will be "fueled by creators and innovators" in the digital realm, said Marissa Hopkins, a spokeswoman for Adobe.
"Adobe believes that creativity cannot just be an elective - where some youth get to be creative after school or because their school can afford to purchase technology tools - but that instead, creativity is the future for all young people. That's why we're supporting ConnectED - to increase access to creativity for all."
Adobe is making its $300 million contribution to Title I qualified schools by donating creative tools like Adobe Photoshop Elements and multimedia software like Adobe Premiere Elements. It will also provide eLearning tools like Adobe Presenter and Adobe Captivate.
The application process for teachers, schools and students began in early June, and Adobe has since been reviewing them on a rolling basis. The ConnectED commitment will continue for five years or until 15, 000 schools are served, with plans to continue support in the future via Adobe's own Education Exchange and Youth Voices programs.
No Software Without Hardware
In June, Apple opened up its applications for iPads, MacBooks, and technical training to "schools with a high percentage of students in lunch assistance programs." Apple has committed $100 million to the program.
Likewise, Microsoft has a $1 billion commitment to serve students with both hardware and software. It has thus far partnered with multiple hardware companies to bring tablets and laptops to schools including the Lenovo ThinkPad, ASUS Transformer Book T100, Acer Travelmate TMB113-E, and the Toshiba Satelite NB15t.
Windows 8.1 Pro and Office 365 ProPlus will also be made available for free to schools that apply, on top of Microsoft IT Academy training to familiarize students and teachers with technology.
Serving The Unserved
Together with Verizon, will lend wireless tablets, as well as hands-on learning tools to every Native American student in ten school-related dormitories on reservations across the West and Midwest of the U.S. Verizon will deploy broadband infrastructure to provide robust wireless connectivity.
The telecom company’s total commitment numbers at $100 million over the course of several years, as does Sprint’s, which seeks to bring free wireless service to 50,000 low-income high school students over the next four years.
There’s precedence for technology fostering higher academic achievement. An evaluation study conducted in January by the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit organization that serves educators, found that schools with Verizon Innovative Learning Schools (a professional development program for teachers) that integrated mobile technology experienced much more positive results than others.
Students and teachers from 24 elementary, middle, and high schools participated. The control group included schools without mobile technology as well as schools with mobile technology that did not participate in any systematic, professional development program focused on using technology effectively to teach students.
Among other things, teachers in the VILS program reported that 35 percent of their students showed higher scores on classroom assessments; 32 percent showed increased engagement in the classroom; and 62 percent demonstrated increased proficiency with mobile devices.” Sixty percent of teachers also reported that they were providing more one-on-one assistance to students by using their mobile devices and 47 percent said they were spending less time on lectures to the entire class.
Free Of Charge
With all the free hardware, software, and educational tools being offered to schools, one could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the motive and end goal of these tech companies.
There really isn’t a catch, Wong said. The contributions by each of the ten ConnectED partners are a steadfast dedication to the next generation of innovators and customers.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked. “It’s free.”
Or as Ashley Whitlatch, Global Education Relations at Prezi, puts it: “we’re giving away tools to educators that are able to utilize them to improve education. Why would that ever be a bad thing?”