Preparing America’s students with the skills they need to get good jobs and compete with countries around the world relies increasingly on interactive, individualized learning experiences driven by new technology. President Barack Obama drove this message home on Thursday at nearby Mooresville Middle School.

The president unveiled his new ConnectED plan during the stop in North Carolina last week. The project calls on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take the steps necessary to build high-speed digital connections to America’s schools and libraries, ensuring that 99 percent of American students can benefit from these advances in teaching and learning.

The president is further directing the federal government to make better use of existing funds to get this technology into classrooms, and into the hands of teachers trained on its advantages. Finally, he also is calling on businesses, states, districts, schools, and communities to support this vision.

“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee,” Obama said, “shouldn’t we have it in our schools?”

According to the White House, the average school has about the same connectivity as the average American home, but serves 200 times as many users, adding that fewer than 20 percent of the nation’s educators believe that the Internet connections at their schools meet their teaching needs.

Former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue applauded the president’s new plan to connect nearly every U.S. classroom to high-speed Internet.

“We must make our schools an integral part of the broadband and technology transformation because this technology is real, it is available, and its capacity to improve education is profound,” said Perdue, who continues to be active in improving connectivity and digital learning across the country. “Having a 21st century technology infrastructure for all learners no matter their age should be the one effort on which we all agree as we continue to better prepare our students and workers for the worldwide knowledge economy.”

While in office, Perdue led the N.C. School Connectivity Initiative that connected all school districts to MCNC’s North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN) through a public-private partnership with MCNC and the N.C. General Assembly. Perdue was instrumental in leading MCNC’s $144 million expansion of that network through the Golden LEAF Rural Broadband Initiative, which is set for completion on June 21.

Using no state funding, MCNC raised $40 million in private matching funds to attract NTIA grants totaling $104 million to fund the massive fiber build. MCNC’s efforts through NCREN’s high-speed network were seen and used first-hand by President Obama on Thursday in Mooresville.

“It’s appropriate that President Obama and Secretary Duncan chose Mooresville Graded School District as the place to unveil ConnectED. Superintendent Mark Edwards and his team have done a great job integrating digital resources into teaching and learning as well as adopting a culture of learning that is focused on the individual learner,” said MCNC President and CEO Joe Freddoso. “MCNC and its private-sector carrier partners including AT&T, TimeWarner Cable, Windstream, and CenturyLink are proud to supply Mooresville and all school districts in North Carolina the bandwidth they need to lead the nation in digital learning integration.”

Digital Promise, a bipartisan non-profit organization authorized by Congress to spur innovation in education for all levels of learners, was signed into law by former President George W. Bush and launched by President Obama. The organization released the following statement on ConnectED:

“Digital Promise is pleased to support the White House’s ConnectED initiative launched today. Through the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, we help districts around the country establish and share best practices for an engaging, efficient, 21st century education. We are encouraged that the daily needs and challenges of those districts are addressed through ConnectED. Funds for high-speed Internet access in low-income and rural districts will ensure all students can access a modern education. Professional development is the foundation for any successful technology implementation, and an added emphasis on teacher training will ensure these tools supplement, rather than hinder, the great work already occurring in many classrooms. And we are confident ConnectED will support the efforts of Digital Promise and many others in working with the private sector to create tools that directly address teacher and student demand. We look forward to our continued involvement in this ongoing work.”

Obama was joined for Thursday’s announcement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whose department would work with the FCC to revamp the initiative known as the Schools and Libraries program or E-Rate, to provide local schools with Internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. “Some people ask if technology is going to replace teachers,” said Duncan. “That’s not ever going to happen. The answer is always great teachers.”

The ConnectED name is new, but the idea has been a long-time cause for Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who, along with then-Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), pushed to get E-Rate written into the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

“In its almost two decades, the E-Rate program has fundamentally transformed education in this country – we have connected our most remote schools and libraries to the world,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “But as impressive and important as the E-Rate program has been, basic Internet connectivity is no longer sufficient to meet our 21st-century educational needs. It is time to create E-Rate 2.0.”

Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn also provided a statement:

“For America to compete in the 21st century, we need to make sure all of our children and their teachers have access to the best learning technology. Over the last 15 years, the FCC’s E-Rate program has successfully helped bring Internet access to our nation’s schools and libraries. But basic Internet access is no longer sufficient, and the FCC has been taking a hard look at ways to further modernize the E-Rate program to bring robust broadband to schools and libraries, especially those in low income and rural communities. So I applaud the president for his bold vision. I look forward to working with my fellow (FCC) commissioners and the many stakeholders as we answer the president’s call to modernize this vital program.”

Microsoft Corporation founder Bill Gates tweeted: “To compete, U.S. needs to get all schools online. Glad to hear about today’s @whitehouse announcement re #ConnectED”

Other notable tweets…

  • @rec54 – “Connecting all students across the country can be accomplished without congress. #ConnectED”
  • @debbyj18 – “Do it! RT @whitehouse PresObama #ConnectED initiative It “will connect 99% of America’s students to high-speed broadband internet w/in 5yrs”
  • @skrashen – “@whitehouse How much is #ConnectEd going to cost? US has 23% child poverty: These children need food, medical care, access to books.”
  • @MaDTECHEd – “Broadband at home is crucial, otherwise, kids are getting the message that learning only happens in one place. #ConnectEd”
  • @hannahlesk – “Every child, every day, deserves that chance. We’ve got an obligation to give every young person that chance.” Yes, #ConnectED!”
  • @BarackObama: “I want to see a tablet that’s the same price as a textbook.” —President Obama, announcing #ConnectED for students.…”

Obama’s stop in North Carolina was his first since he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination at his party’s convention last September in Charlotte.