President Barack Obama will recognize the best of nearly 2,500 short films that were submitted by K-12 students on the role of technology in education. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)
Washington — Two days before attention shifts to the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, the White House is trying to create a little buzz for America’s future filmmakers.
At a film festival Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama will recognize the best of nearly 2,500 films — 16 to be exact — that were submitted by K-12 students after the White House put out the call for short videos on the role technology plays in their education. It’s one of the president’s favorite subjects.
Obama recently set a goal of wiring virtually every classroom with high-speed Internet by sometime in 2018.
Last month, he announced $750 million in commitments from U.S. companies to help move the project along, including $100 million in iPads, computers and other tools from Apple, $100 million in cash and in-kind contributions from Verizon, and discounted Windows software from Microsoft.
The Federal Communications Commission also pledged $2 billion to connect 20 million students in 15,000 schools over the next two years.
At the White House on Friday, Obama was announcing an additional $400 million in private-sector pledges for the ConnectEd initiative, bringing to more than $1 billion the total value of cash and goods committed to the project. Adobe is donating $300 million worth of its software products to teachers and students. The Hungarian software company Prezi is providing $100 million worth of its products.
“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, we should definitely demand it in our schools,” Obama said last month at a Maryland school where students are assigned iPads for use in class and at home. He even borrowed a student’s tablet to make a short film of his own.
Obama says the average school has the same Internet speed as the average home but serves 200 times as many people. He laments that just 30 percent of U.S. students have true high-speed Internet in their classrooms, compared with 100 percent of South Korean students.
Friday’s festival was dreamed up as a way to showcase the many ways students use technology and the president’s proposal.
The videos could be no longer than 3 minutes. Each was viewed multiple times by an “academy” of judges that was made up of White House officials and others.
The 16 films chosen as finalists — no winners will be declared — will be screened in the East Room in collaboration with the American Film Institute. They are separated into four categories: Young Visionaries, Future Innovators, World of Tomorrow and Building Bridges, and will be presented by actor Kal Penn, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye the Science Guy and AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale. Late-night comedian Conan O’Brien will address the gathering by video.
The young filmmakers range in age from first-graders to 17-year-old high school students and come from 12 states and the District of Columbia.
A group of first-grade friends from Silver Spring, Md., collaborated on “Technology and Me,” in which they offer their take on the past, present and future of classroom technology. One boy declares chalkboards “old school” while a girl explains that “now there are computers and it’s more easier.” Another girl predicts a future classroom with robots.
In the film, “Alex,” 11th-grader Mitch Buangsuwon of California entered a video about his brother, Alex, who suffers from dyslexia and dysgraphia, which affect his reading and writing skills. Alex talks about feeling left behind because he didn’t read as well as the other kids. But after switching to a new school, where he was given a tablet for research and writing, the seventh-grader says his reading went from a third-grade level to a sixth-grade level in a year.
“Not feeling left behind feels really nice,” Alex says. “My school is a good example of how everybody can benefit from technology because everybody learns differently.”
No thank-you speeches will be given. No gold-toned statuettes will be handed out. The budding filmmakers instead will head out knowing that they helped highlight an Obama policy goal.
“It’s a celebration of the way they’re already using technology and the importance of the president’s initiative for increasing that over time,” said Nate Lubin, acting director of the White House Office of Digital Strategy.
Beyond that, the finalists will also be given an exclusive look at the first episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a new TV series by Fox and the National Geographic Channel on the importance of science, technology, engineering and math that is set to premiere on March 9.