New Resource: STEM Grants & Scholarships Collection
Need some extra funds to get your next STEM initiative off the ground? Your school is likely eligible for a grant or two. Check out our new STEM grant collection to see for yourself!
Educational technology is in the spotlight. Although the practice of using technology tools and programs to support sound educational practices is not new, the pandemic thrust teaching and learning into a new environment that embraces these tools as essential. “People seem to be waking up to the reality that ed tech is no longer a separate category and that nearly everything students do has a technology component,” says Bart Epstein, CEO of the EdTech Evidence ExchangeF1 .
As school districts adjusted, they were able to leverage new stimulus-related funding designed to support the changing learning environment. As an added result, teachers report that using ed tech during remote learning has opened their eyes and made them more willing to use technology with their students in the traditional environment. This enthusiasm is likely to continue as in-person learning becomes more consistent. However, now that we face the end of this supplemental funding and return to traditional funding structures, Illinois school districts will have to determine what’s working, what is necessary and what should be considered a luxury. Alternatively, as district teachers and administrators make tough decisions on what tools and practices should continue, they will search out funding resources to support their efforts.
The mass adoption of educational technology tools and funding allowed teachers to try some things they wouldn’t have had access to before. A report produced by LEARN Platform by Instructure indicates that 1,417 ed tech tools were accessed each month by the average district in the 2021-22 school year. Successful platforms and programs will continue to grow while others will be cast aside. Evaluating purchased goods and materials has become a growing challenge for educators. Edtech Magazine produced an article in March of 2022 in an effort to support districts as they “endeavor to future-proof school infrastructure using the many available funding options.” They recommend that districts consider their existing policies and bring all parties to the table when making district purchasing decisions. There are several models for evaluating educational technology that can be used by these district teams.
When balancing budgets and funding streams, it’s important to know if a tool is being used regularly, by whom and for what purposes. Edtechfactotum.com provides a list of several evaluation models and their descriptions. Many are similar and relate to widely used teaching frameworks like SAMR and TPACK.
If a district has already endorsed a teaching framework for use of technology tools, there may be an evaluation process that naturally materializes. There are also methodologies that have been developed by non-profit organizations and universities that can be used for the effective evaluation of learning materials. Districts can also lean on data collected by programs and software designed to monitor the use of technology tools. Data analysis tools within programs such as Lightspeed/CatchOn, LEARN Platform, BrightBytes and Clever/Goals, among others, can be used to generate reports on inventory, frequency of use and targeted implementation of certain tools.
Teachers and administrators can leverage these reports to drive down access costs. Collected data could indicate what programs are used in certain grade or curriculum levels, which tools have been determined as essential to the content and others that are being deployed as supplemental for smaller groups of students. Districts can potentially save money by negotiating licensing toward individual use instead of purchasing a blanket license for the district or building. It is important to remember that when using a data analysis technique that although some tools may appear to have less use than others, they may be deployed with an intention toward equity initiatives. Therefore, the educators implementing these tools should be consulted within the process.
As teachers and administrators make more informed decisions, they also face limited financial resources. As we return to ‘normal’ funding levels, it’s important to realize that essential learning tools come with ongoing costs.
The Office of Educational Technology, US Department of Education reminds us, “Technology investments are not one-time expenses. Once a vision for the use of technology is in place, district superintendents and school leaders should examine existing budgets to identify areas in which spending can be reduced or eliminated to pay for learning technologies.”
To support this philosophy, the office produced a Dear Colleague Letter that outlines the use of Title Funding for the evaluation and purchase of digital content. This document provides best practices for selecting educational technology strategies, identifies a number of existing funding sources and outlines the use of federal funding for expenses of tools, resources, digital content and professional learning. It also supports the practice of blended and braided funding. This process involves combining two or more sources (or “streams”) of funding to support a program or activity. Braided funding pools multiple funding streams toward one purpose while separately tracking and reporting on each funding source.
As funding streams shift and realign with district priorities, districts must ensure that they are aware of and utilizing funds that support the services that enable this technology use.
The largest of these programs is the federal E-Rate program, supported by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC’s E-Rate program makes telecommunications and information services more affordable for schools and libraries. E-Rate provides discounts for telecommunications, internet access and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries. The program focuses on discounting the cost of campus internet and the equipment necessary to distribute that internet throughout school buildings. Schools and libraries can receive up to a 90 percent discount on their internet access costs. The exact level of discount a school or library is eligible for is determined by the poverty level of the community. Typically, school districts use National School Lunch Program data to support their requests, but alternative mechanisms, such as survey tools, can also be used. The program also provides funding for infrastructure improvements with a five-year formula funding model.
Typically referred to as Category 2 funding, this arm of the E-Rate program supports internal network equipment and services that are needed to enable high-speed broadband connectivity throughout the school building in an effort to enable digital learning. The base level budget for all small schools with less than 250 students starts at $25,000 and increases proportional to the student population from there.
There are also several other funding sources that supplement the E-Rate program: The Illinois State Matching Grant and the Illinois State Consortium.
ISBE’s Illinois State Matching Grant provides reimbursement of special fiber special construction costs to districts that are eligible for matching E-rate federal funding. Public school districts that need new fiber builds in order to connect school buildings and facilities can apply for E-Rate funding towards their build project and can indicate on their E-Rate form that they will also need State Match funding to offset the cost remaining after E-Rate discounts are provided. This results in newly built fiber connections at no additional cost to the district.
The Illinois State Consortium is an Illinois program that works with E-Rate funding to provide opportunities to Illinois public schools is the Illinois State Consortium. State of Illinois funding has been allocated for a secure K-12 Broadband Network available at no cost for all Illinois K-12 public school districts. The key objective is to ensure every Illinois public K-12 school district has sufficient and fully funded bandwidth to meet the needs of their students, faculty and administration. This program serves schools by managing part of the E-Rate application process and secures state contracts to connect schools to the Illinois Century Network. Illinois public school districts must provide application permission and circuit information to the consortium in order to participate. If districts approve the solutions recommended by the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology, the end result is on-campus connectivity from the state at no cost to the district for the term of the agreement.
The pandemic has brought to light that connectivity at school is not sufficient. It’s imperative that all students be able to connect to the learning process no matter where they are.
The Emergency Connectivity Fund is a pandemic stimulus-funded program that helps schools and libraries provide the tools and services their communities need for remote learning during the COVID-19 emergency period. The focus of this funding is on home access for staff and students. Final (third) round expenses for this program only run through December 31, 2023, when the program will sunset. Fortunately, a second program has been identified to assist in home connectivity as the ECF program ends.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is an FCC benefit program that helps ensure that households can afford the broadband they need for work, school, healthcare and more. Although not dedicated to educational use, this program supports student home access for those eligible for the program. All students eligible for NSLP free and reduced lunch program and all students attending a CEP school building are eligible for ACP benefits. Households eligible for ACP can get $30 off of their home connectivity costs each month with participating internet providers. In addition, many providers offer specific packages at the same price point in order to provide homes with a free connectivity option. This program was funded through an infrastructure bill and is not expected to sunset when other pandemic-related funding ends.
According to the 2022 LTC/ISBE Technology Survey, approximately 85 percent of Illinois school districts report having enough devices on hand at their district to support 1:1 learning initiatives. 70 percent report having a plan for device rotation and replacement when these devices reach the end of life.
Ongoing federal and state funding sources can be used towards this device replacement cost, as identified above. However, another financial planning resource has been provided to assist schools that may need to consider financing of these purchases.
The Illinois State Board of Education has attempted to address this issue by leveraging Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to create multiple rounds of Digital Equity formula grants. The purpose of the Elementary and Secondary Relief – Digital Equity formula grant is to assist school districts in closing the Digital Divide and enabling digital-age teaching and learning. The Standards and Instruction Department identified a list of eligible applicants and allocations using survey responses from the annual Illinois School District Technology Survey. This funding targets districts not at a 1:1 device to student ratio and districts with large numbers of five year old or older devices. It is expected that funding opportunities through this program will only run through the fall of 2023, when the available funds are diminished.
The ISBE School Technology Revolving Loan Fund is a low-interest, three-year loan available from the ISBE to school districts. Funding rotates annually from elementary to high school application cycles. Funds are allocated from the legislature for the purpose of making the financing of school technology hardware improvements affordable and making the integration of technology in the classroom possible.
Many businesses and organizations provide funding guides in an effort to help school districts with planning and purchasing connectivity, educational technology tools and support for professional learning.
Documents like the Kajeet Funding Guide contain simple but effective steps for school districts to better position themselves toward securing grant money to fund potential programs, along with tips for implementing and sustaining ed tech programs. The ISBE Funding Opportunities Planning Calendar for FY24 outlines a calendar of grant opportunities within our state.
Publications such as these are designed to arm school districts with various strategies and make them aware of funding sources that they might not otherwise be aware of. It’s also important to note that the IL-EMPOWER funding from ISBE can also be used for hiring technology coaches and for professional learning opportunities. IL-EMPOWER is Illinois’ Statewide System of Support for School Improvement and blends federal funding in order to support these efforts.
The stress of making sound financial decisions in school districts will always be a challenge. Nevertheless, school districts in Illinois can continue to focus on the data-driven evaluation of purchased goods and materials, creatively approach funding options and stay aware of funding opportunities to ensure they provide a world-class education to all students within their district. Continuing to stay involved with supporting organizations such as Illinois ASBO and the Learning Technology Center of Illinois will allow all districts to thrive in this emerging educational environment.
F1: Bart Epstein, The74million.org article