The Redesigned SAT

Using a MOOC model to advance equity of access.

GUEST COLUMN | by Emily Kissane

CREDIT College BoardThe College Board’s announcement of a significant redesign of the SAT garnered wide attention from prospective college students, educators, policymakers, and the press.  From vocabulary questions focused on more commonly used words to the math section covering fewer subjects, the media has detailed the implications of these and other changes for student test-takers.

Test content has rightfully taken center stage, but technology has a vital supporting role in launching the new SAT. The two most obvious points are the option to take the exam on a

Success in taking the redesigned SAT will have more to do with mastery of content and less about test-taking strategies. Technology can play a vital role.

computer as well as on paper and the banishing of calculators for some of the math sections. But technology will be important beyond its role in the test-taking process; it has the potential to advance students’ preparation for the exam and to support the educational aspirations of more young adults.

Colleges and universities should (and do) use a variety of means to assess each student for admission—the rigor of courses taken in high school, grades, a portfolio of work, and standardized test scores, for example. Continuous improvement of those insights and tools benefits students and institutions as they predict how well a student will succeed in college.

The College Board’s announcement—and the nature of the proposed changes—are evidence that success in taking the redesigned SAT will have more to do with mastery of content and less about test-taking strategies. Eliminating the penalty against guessing is a case in point. More closely aligning the exam with high school and college curricula makes it an even more valuable part of college readiness.

This change means that test preparation ideally should be integrated more closely into classroom studies and college readiness activities, and technology can play a vital role in accomplishing that goal. That point was made during the rollout of the revised SAT, with College Board announcing a partnership with Khan Academy to provide free online test preparation. The announcement also underscored the importance of addressing access to test preparation for low-income students—an increasingly critical issue as preparation becomes less about the process of taking the test (i.e. test-taking tips and strategies) and more about instruction and the mastery of content.

Achieving greater equity of access to test preparation tools and materials will rely on addressing the availability and affordability of Internet connectivity in low-income and rural areas. If students are going to use technology, they need the means to gain access to it.

Some schools and districts have addressed equity of access issues by having school- or district-wide test preparation tools. To meet the demands of the redesigned SAT and other rigorous assessments, a solution should personalize instruction and have the following features:

  •       Ongoing assessment of each student’s academic strengths and weaknesses;
  •       Instruction focused on areas of greatest need;
  •       Full integration with the school’s or district’s college and career readiness efforts;
  •       Timely feedback for teachers on their students’ performance and progress;
  •       Reporting that provides essential detail while being easy to use; and
  •       Support for teachers and counselors to ensure they and their students make effective use of the tool.

The move towards college entrance assessments becoming more reflective of classroom learning and real-life college content should prompt the creation or advancement of technology solutions to support student mastery of content. Preparation for these assessments should become an integral part of high schools’ curricula, thereby making college and career readiness the expectation for all students.

Emily Kissane is a policy analyst specializing K-12 and higher education for Hobsons, an education solutions company maximizing success through every stage of the learning lifecycle. Follow her on Twitter @Emily_Kissane.

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A Digital Diet

A teacher’s perspective on how edtech is leading to more effective instruction time.

GUEST COLUMN | by Steve Beard

CREDIT NOVAIncorporating digital resources and various forms of edtech into classrooms is expanding education and inspiring minds. In my own experience, edtech has expanded my ability to engage with students and enrich their learning experience. With more than 10 years of teaching experience in a variety of settings, one of the best ways I’ve found to introduce concepts and engage students is through the resources on PBS LearningMedia. The content I find there is not only reliable and entertaining; it can be used at different points in my instruction. One clip may help springboard a discussion at the beginning of a class, while another clip may help explain a key concept or summarize a section we’ve discussed.

My goal is to lead students to a proactive use of technology, where they obtain information and then apply it.

My job would be much more difficult without educational technology. I use a variety of tools to help my students understand different concepts about the world around them, many of which are abstract, such as the atomic nature of matter. Students need some sort of visual explanation to help them understand how the world works. Educational technology encourages curiosity and engages students; this is particularly true with resources from PBS. One of my favorites is NOVA’s Hunting the Elements video and app, which I use to help my students understand how atoms combine to form everything they interact with.

Once students have an opportunity to engage with concepts through videos or interactives, I provide them with tools to extend their learning beyond the walls of the classroom. We’ve used sensors attached to our iPads to gather data from a local stream, allowing students to investigate the contents and contaminants beyond what their eyes can see in our streams and drinking water. This activity led to discussions about water treatment, as well as the health of the stream, living organisms and the surrounding community. I’ve been able to follow up our classroom investigations with clips from Frontline’s program about drinking water called “Poisoned Waters.” This gives students a regional and national context for their research and data collection.

The use of technology and digital media has in many ways made me a more effective teacher. Students frequently clamor for more digital media; this is in part because the videos are entertaining and eye-catching. The fact that the resources are full of excellent educational content means that classtime is both captivating and impactful.

My goal is to lead students to a proactive use of technology, where they obtain information and then apply it. For example, exploring the NOVA Sun Lab allows students to watch several short videos with basic information about the sun. During this process they are actively involved in answering review questions about what they just watched. Occasionally the questions move up Bloom’s taxonomy to apply what they’ve learned. Finally, the online lab offers access to current data about conditions on the sun and students are able to analyze this data and suggest causes and various outcomes of the changes in our sun.

In addition to using technology and digital media as effective tools in the classroom, I want to have an open and constructive conversation about the limitations of technology. My goal is to help students and myself to become more effective users of media so that we all can employ these tools to improve our world.

In light of this, I wondered how much my students were using technology, so I assigned them the task of tracking their daily consumption of media, specifically any screen they are using (tablet, computer, phone, TV, etc.) in school or at home. They then created a Google form on their iPads to graphically present the data.

One striking result that we discovered is that sleep is a category that is often neglected. After charting their own use, students were given time to reflect on their choices. Some students were shocked that they spent 16-18 hours per day in front of a screen. Others were content that they spent about 6 hours with screens.

I remind them that the goal of the activity is not to punish or condemn them for screen use, but to encourage health.

We then compared our use to the data collected since 1999 by an ongoing report on media consumption in the lives of 8 to 18 year olds. I find that guiding students to take a personal assessment of their use of screen time and digital media empowers them to seek out the best media and technology for their educational and personal success.

Educational technology offers many benefits, but I don’t believe it is a replacement for the dynamic interactions between educators and students. My hope is that students use many resources, such as those available through PBS LearningMedia, so that they become more effective citizens and can contribute to improving our world. Here’s to a balanced diet of edtech and digital media in the classroom.

Steve Beard works at Thomas Edison High School in Portland, Oregon. His school serves high school students in grades 9-12. Steve currently teaches Conceptual Physics and Earth Science; he also teaches electives such as Ultimate Frisbee, Latin American Studies and Indigenous Instruments. Steve was recently selected as one of the 2014 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovators for his outstanding use of digital media in the classroom.

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The Mathematics of Effectiveness

An edtech CEO shares his perspective on all the big data buzz.    

GUEST COLUMN | by Jose Ferreira

CREDIT KnewtonI was on a panel at SXSWedu this year. At the beginning, our moderator, Dr. Rod Berger, invited the audience to suggest buzzwords that the panelists shouldn’t be allowed to use. Someone said “big data.” (I tried to comply for about 5 minutes before I gave up.) That’s like calling “anatomy” or “supply and demand” buzzwords. How can a branch of science be a buzzword?

Someone else at SXSWedu said, “I still have yet to hear anyone explain what big data is!” as if that were an indictment of big data. To my ears, that sounds like saying, “I still have yet to hear anyone explain what the Higgs Boson is!” And, fair enough, they are both relatively new science. So let’s explain big data now. And then let’s examine the arguments against using this powerful personalization science to help kids learn.

The data have always been there. What’s changed is that technology has recently made them easy to capture.

Like the Higgs Boson, big data has been around forever, in that it’s part of the natural law of the universe. And similarly, it has attained prominent notice by human society over recent decades. But big data has been used by human beings for a long time — just in bricks-and-mortar applications. Insurance and standardized tests are both examples of big data from before the Internet.

The data have always been there. What’s changed is that technology has recently made them easy to capture. The Internet and mobile make everything done on a device capturable. Scanning technology is becoming mainstream, whether biometric scanners you wear on your body or hold in your phone, or logistical scanners embedded in packages and products.

So now the mathematics of big data are suddenly usable at scale. And that’s all big data is: a type of mathematics. Just like calculus is the mathematics of change, and probability is the mathematics of likelihood, big data is the mathematics of effectiveness. It aggregates data at scale — it doesn’t work at small scale. But when you’ve got enough data in one place, and if those data are “normalized” (meaning they can be made to adhere to some central rules, standards, or taxonomies), then you can start finding interesting patterns and outliers. And therein is the payoff: some of those patterns will turn into powerful strategies that can be used to discover flaws in and improve a given process. Big data can optimize giant complex processes, both centrally and for each individual user, in a way that bricks-and-mortar data gathering — or simply ignoring data — never could. The bigger the system, the more big data adds value. And there are few systems bigger than the global education system.

Big data in education has huge potential to improve learning materials. Education by its nature produces tremendous amounts of data thanks to a) the extended amount of time students spend working with learning materials and b) the strong correlations between educational concepts, which generate cascade effects of insights. Up until now those data were not remotely capturable at scale. Now they are.

We can use these data to generate concept-level proficiency measurements. These can in turn optimize outside-of-class work, so that each student receives a constantly-updating personalized textbook optimized down to the concept. Optimizing outside-of-class work means kids come to class better prepared. Big data can also support teachers by helping answer questions like “We covered some tough material last week — how well do they understand it?” “What else do they need to do to master a given concept?” “What score would a particular student get on Friday’s quiz if he took it today?” “How much productive time has a student spent working this week?”

Such insight should only be a positive thing for teachers, students, parents, and others. So why are some people so scared of big data in education? There seem to be a few main arguments they use to try to scare everyone else away from big data:

  1.      Students’ privacy will be violated. Google, Facebook, and other consumer web companies violate our privacy. But that’s only because they have an ad-based business model. They can only make money by selling your data — and degrading the product experience with ads. How do they get away with this? They give away the product. They give you the choice to watch that TV show or search for that page, and in exchange they mine your data to sell you things. I agree wholeheartedly that the idea of huge corporations selling and reselling children’s personal data to make money is totally unacceptable. But there is no particular reason to believe that this will occur in education. I don’t know of a single ad-supported business model in the traditional education space. It makes no sense for an education company to sell data, and any company that decided otherwise would be immediately destroyed by the resulting outcry. However, though I think the risk is low, the stakes are high. Everybody in the education ecosystem should be held to the highest custodial standards, and there should be little forgiveness for transgressions.
  2.      Data will replace teachers. It won’t. This idea doesn’t even make any sense to me. Teachers and data do totally different things. Data is only additive, like x-rays in hospitals and instant replay in sports. Data adds concrete information to a teacher’s observations and intuition, but it will never replace experience, personal relationships, and cultural understanding. Think of Moneyball. Statistics haven’t replaced talent scouts — they’ve just armed them with more than intuition.
  3.      Data will be used to judge teachers. This is very unlikely, for the simple reason that classrooms don’t produce much data. A lecture produces no data at all. A flipped classroom produces a little data, but not nearly as much as people think. However, students reading textbooks and doing practice questions produce extraordinary amounts of data. So big data can optimize outside-of-class work like you wouldn’t believe, and help better prepare students for class. But because the data are largely being generated outside of class, it would be impossible to produce an algorithm for measuring teachers that is remotely as effective as simply observing them directly.
  4.      Data dehumanizes students. This is less an argument than it is a general slur, but one does hear it used increasingly (and increasingly hysterically) by opponents of big data. “Your child is now a data point,” they say, seeking hopefully to end the debate before it starts (as if angrily denouncing a new science has a promising historical track record). Human beings produce huge quantities of data when they study. We also have a unique genetic code, measurable body chemistry, and are subject to the laws of physics. The idea of students and teachers not taking advantage of educational data for this reason makes as much sense as doctors not prescribing medicine because it “reduces” patients to chemicals and biological processes. Can you imagine a parent screaming, “You’re reducing my child to her chemical composition!”? Um, no, we’re just giving her Tylenol. Because she has a headache. Human beings can’t be perfectly understood by science, but we are governed by science. Those who would deny data-driven personalized educations materials to children are no different than religious fundamentalists who deny their children access to modern medicine because they think prayer works better.
  5.      Big data tools will just enrich for-profit corporations. This is a classic ad hominem argument. It casts vague aspersions on everyone who works for a for-profit company, as if incorporation status alone were sufficient to judge the character of a group of people or the quality of a product. Virtually every component of the education system is made by a for-profit company — the building, the lunches, the materials. Sure, public schools themselves are not-for-profit. But teachers aren’t; they take salaries. Data opponents argue that “education is too sacred for people to profit from.” By that logic, teachers should work for free. Education is sacred. To me, it’s the most important thing in the world. So I’m delighted that the full creative energies of society, regardless of incorporation status, are focused on it. Working at a for-profit doesn’t make you a bad person and working at a non-profit doesn’t make you a saint. Let’s focus on judging only what works best for kids, not the tax status of organizations.

These arguments are the kind that one expects in the very early days of a big new movement. They will seem increasingly naïve as time goes on.

It’s early days still, but sustained, large-scale efforts to use data to improve education are currently underway. And because of the very nature of big data, the results will be highly measurable. Exactly two logical possibilities follow: Big data will either improve net learning outcomes or it won’t. And when it’s proven that it does, no school will be able to ignore big data, as doing so will give their students a structural disadvantage versus other schools, other states, or other countries. Parents and students won’t stand for it.

Jose Ferreira is the founder and CEO of Knewton. Follow him @Knewton_Jose

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Freedom from Busywork

A modernized approach to student information and learning management systems.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Andrew Herman of AlmaBased on the belief that schools deserve a modern technology system that provides all their administrative and classroom management needs in one intuitive, flexible platform, Andrew Herman (pictured) founded Alma (formerly known as School Current) in 2012. As CEO, Andrew sets long-term strategy and leads team development and collaboration to plan and meet product development goals. Under his leadership, the company released its prototype in 2012 with school partners across the country, and launched its enterprise-ready platform in early 2014. Before starting Alma, Andrew served in several financial and corporate management positions, including founding a successful analytical instrumentation company and leading numerous acquisitions for Danaher Corporation. As an early employee of Advertising.com,

In five years, I think the landscape of software tools used in schools will look completely different.

he lead the venture investment raise for the company and helped lay the foundation for the company’s long-term success. Andrews’s passion for education began early in his professional career when he taught middle school at Link Community School in Newark, NJ. Andrew earned an MBA from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts from Wesleyan University. In this interview, Andrew outlines some of his basic ideas about efficiency in education and providing educators with a modernized approach to administrative tasks.

Victor: What is Alma and how does it benefit schools?

CREDIT Alma SIS LMSAndrew: Alma is a new approach to school and classroom management that consolidates all of a school’s critical systems and productivity tools into one modern, highly affordable platform.

Teachers and administrators are frustrated with time-consuming and expensive student information systems (SIS) and learning management systems (LMS) that simply don’t meet their needs. In the last decade, technology has made huge advances, but schools are still stuck with a mix of outdated legacy systems and single-function apps that put the onus on educators to piece together a holistic picture of each student, classroom and school.

Alma brings together core SIS and LMS functionality,  and adds to it with progressive classroom and curriculum tools and time-saving features, with the ultimate goal of cutting down on educator busywork and freeing up time to spend with students. And because we’re a mission-driven company, we’re making the system’s core functionality available for free – so all schools, regardless of their size or budget, can have access to the best tools possible.

Victor: What inspired you to build Alma, and why now?

Andrew: I was a teacher early in my career, and though I loved teaching, I found the amount of time I had to spend on busywork outside of the classroom frustrating. Fast forward 15 years, and I’m still hearing this frustration from teachers – in fact, if anything, it’s gotten worse. In the last several years productivity and cloud technologies have had a huge impact on most jobs as well as our personal lives, yet schools continue to suffer with outdated and ineffective software. So, a couple years ago my co-founder and I began talking with teachers and administrators to learn more about their pain points and determine how modern software might help. Since then, we have spoken with hundreds of educators, and those conversations shaped the development of Alma.

Victor: What are the greatest data management challenges affecting schools?

Andrew: With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, we’ve seen a growing interest in standards-based grading (also known as proficiency-based grading). This approach is great in that it lets teachers see how students are progressing on specific goals throughout the learning process. But it also generates volumes of data that can be overwhelming to digest and report. To help with this, we’ve put a lot of energy into streamlining how standards and proficiency data is tracked and reported, so teachers can more quickly cut through the noise and get to useful insights. Additionally, schools are struggling with trying to integrate data from the fragmented applications they have to use. Alma provides SIS, LMS and gradebook data in one system to present a 360º view of student learning and easily gives administrators, educators, students and parents greater visibility into their school then they’ve ever had before.

Victor: What’s your approach to ed tech design and how is it different?

Andrew: Everything we do starts and ends with the user experience. We have a phenomenal development team and they’ve created a system that’s simple, intuitive and time-saving. The design elements and functionality that make great smartphone and tablet apps so easy and enjoyable to use – things like drag-and-drop sorting, automatic search suggestions, and so on – help make Alma a completely different experience than what teachers and administrators are used to. We want Alma to be a joy to use, not a burden.

Victor: Switching to a new SIS or LMS seems like a daunting task for schools. How easy is Alma to set up?

Andrew: Alma is very easy to set up. With our setup wizard, schools can fully configure Alma in under a day – and our goal is to eventually get that down to an hour. We also offer tiered training packages for schools that desire more hands-on support and specialized services to ensure they use Alma to its fullest capabilities.

Victor: Where do you see education in five years, and what trends helped drive these changes?

Andrew: As I mentioned earlier, technology has made huge strides in the last several years, and I think we’re on the verge of those changes coming to schools and classrooms. The cloud makes it possible to deliver so much more at such lower costs, that in five years I think the landscape of software tools used in schools will look completely different. Our whole team is proud of and humbled by the opportunity to be part of that transformation.

Victor: Who are your competitors? What’s different about Alma compared to other systems?

Andrew: We think of our competitors largely in two categories – all-encompassing legacy systems and single-function apps. Legacy systems were generally designed to operate as two totally separate systems, and developed one school at a time then rebuilt for the next school. Most of these larger companies have not exhibited an ability to innovate and adapt to the latest technology trends, outside of acquiring other companies. Most recently, newer applications have been coming on the market that do one or two things really well, but they add to an already long list of tools educators have to use, and it’s up to the teacher or administrator to connect the dots between all the different tools.

With Alma, we’ve created a modern alternative that brings together student information and learning management tools in a single system that’s enjoyable to use, and significantly less expensive than what schools have been stuck with in the past.

Victor: Now that you’ve launched Alma, what’s next? 

Andrew: We’re thrilled by the positive response Alma has received from schools so far – not only in the U.S., but around the world! That said, our focus this year is on charter and private K-12 schools, and we’re limiting the number of signups to 500 schools in 2014 to make sure we can deliver not only a great product but also great customer service and support. We anticipate that we’ll start talking with school districts later this year, for rollout in the 2015/16 school year.

Victor: Many parents, schools and lawmakers are concerned about student privacy. How does Alma address that?

Andrew: We are fanatical about privacy and security. Being entrusted to manage student data is a tremendous responsibility, and we treat it as such. Our development team includes security experts who’ve previously worked in banking and ecommerce – industries that tend to have the most intense security protections because they’re attacked the most. We’ve applied best practices from those industries in Alma, including SSL encryption, double firewalls, and extra layers of encryption for particularly sensitive data. We also encourage schools using Alma to be proactive in communicating with parents about how the school uses, manages and protects student data.

Victor: What advice would you offer to schools trying to balance their budget with meeting students and parents expectations of what school should be like in our modern age?

Andrew: Schools, parents and students deserve to have access to modern software that helps support learning, and there’s absolutely no reason they can’t have it, at an affordable cost, in this day and age. If a school feels overwhelmed by the prospect of rolling out something new – or if they’re locked into an expensive contract with someone else – I would encourage them to try just one or two of Alma’s features (e.g. attendance or gradebooks) and see how easy the transition can be when you have the right tools.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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A Critical Facet

E-rate funding for web hosting connects parents to district and student success.

GUEST COLUMN | by Edward S. Marflak 

CREDIT schoolwiresThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently working to develop new regulations to modernize the E-rate funding program for K-12 districts. One of the Commission’s goals is to ensure that schools and libraries have affordable access to 21st century broadband to support digital learning. While there are critical and much needed updates to the E-rate program, there is a growing concern in the K-12 community that the FCC may consider eliminating the status of Web hosting as a Priority One Service within the E-rate program. In other words, new regulations intended to expand broadband and digital learning may also stop the funding that powers school and district websites all across the country.

In a recent national survey, 100 percent of K-12 district administrators responded that Web hosting should remain funded as a Priority One Service within the E-rate program. More than 400 educational leaders from school districts of all sizes and types responded to the survey in 2013 and 2010.

While broadband provides the raw connectivity required to support new digital learning strategies, school websites serve as the primary access points for digital learning resources and parental engagement. Thus, today’s secure Web hosting infrastructure works hand in hand with broadband to advance digital learning goals and foster the important school-home connection. As hundreds of educational leaders have already noted, it simply doesn’t make sense to pull the plug on school website funding when the broader national policy objective is to accelerate broadband adoption, digital learning and parental engagement. To those of us who work in and support the K-12 market, the disconnect is obvious.

Continued E-rate funding for Web hosting – and the seamless learning and community engagement it supports – is essential. Research clearly states that parent engagement is a direct precursor and a critical support resource to student achievement. For example, the University of New Hampshire found that “parental effort is consistently associated with higher levels of achievement, and the magnitude of the effect of parental effort is substantial”.

In order to keep today’s digital parents engaged, districts need to keep communications virtual and mobile. The new digital parent is fluent with technology tools personally, and has high expectations for the use of digital tools and resources within their child’s learning environments. Websites provide the central hub for ongoing digital communications and applications that support parent engagement and student success. Schools rely on their websites every day to easily and cost-effectively communicate with parents through notifications of important school events, to conduct polls and surveys to seek input on school policies and programs, and to keep parents apprised of their children’s classroom activities and progress.

Websites also are central to communications between teacher and student, and the district and community. The indispensable role of district websites was echoed throughout the responses of districts in the national survey:

  •  98 percent state that district, school, and classroom websites perform critical educational functions.
  •  95 percent state that websites provide a cost effective mechanism for sharing relevant and timely information.
  •  85 percent state that websites strengthen parent engagement.
  •  75 percent state that websites increase out-of-school learning time.
  •  61 percent state that websites level the playing field across rural and urban schools by providing easy access to 21st century tools and digital learning resources.

Almost all (98 percent) of the respondents stated that their Web presence, enabled by Web hosting, is more important than in 2003 when Web hosting was first added to the E-rate program Eligible Services List as a Priority One service. 

Web hosting increases return on broadband investment

Discontinuing E-rate support for Web hosting would create a costly gap in the school-home connection. In its research, UNH found that “schools would need to increase per pupil spending by more than $1,000 in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement.”

At a cost of pennies per student per week, Web hosting is one of the most cost-effective and highest-impact services funded by E-rate; and it provides a greater return on broadband investment. Nationwide, more than 5,000 school districts filed for E-rate support for Web hosting for the 2014-2015 funding year. Given the decline in school funding over the last decade, the continuation of this funding is more important than ever.

In a February 21, 2014 letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, more than 600 school administrators and educators urged the FCC to continue E-rate funding for Web hosting citing that:

“The elimination of E-rate funding support for Web hosting would cause serious hardship for many school districts that would be forced to cut already tight budgets. These cuts could result in staffing reductions and/or the scaling back of key web and digital learning initiatives.”

My company strongly supports the FCC’s efforts to modernize and reform the E-rate program. However, the national survey of school administrators and educators from across the country shows their concern that the Commission recognizes the mission-critical role of Web hosting and its support of digital learning and accelerating broadband adoption. The elimination of this funding would threaten and undermine the ability of schools to achieve parental engagement and digital learning goals. Without this funding source, schools would need to reduce online communication or make staffing cutbacks that could hinder progress in digital learning.

Now that the Commission has heard from hundreds of school leaders and educators across the country about the importance of Web hosting, we are hopeful that this critical facet of the program will continue to receive full support as the E-rate program evolves.

Edward S. Marflak is Chairman and Founder of Schoolwires. Write to: emarflak@schoolwires.com

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