“But what about access?” – 5 Ways to Defeat the Digital Divide

“Today high speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
– President Obama, January 14, 2015

A lot of people have read this blog, or my posts elsewhere, or attended my conference presentations (at CUE or EdTechTeam conferences) and, inevitably, this question comes up:

“Well, paperless sounds great and all… and these are wonderful digital resources, but… how can we do this if the kids don’t have access to computer devices or the internet?” 

It’s a completely important question and, around here, an extremely relevant one. The fact of the matter is that there is still, even with how ubiquitous technology has become, a “digital divide” and, unfortunately, it poses challenges for education (but I don’t believe they are insurmountable!)

What is “The digital Divide?”

dig·it·al di·vide
noun: digital divide; plural noun: digital divides
  1. the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not.
    a worrying “digital divide” based on race, gender, educational attainment, and income

In short, the “Digital Divide” is a term to describe the fact that, even though computer and internet usage/adoption has grown significantly over the past several years, it has not grown equitably among all social groups, and there still exists a big difference between the percentage of affluent, White, and/or Asian users in the United States, and the percentage of Black, Hispanic, Native American, and/or low-income members of society (White House Council of Economic Advisors). The digital divide can be seen along racial lines, along socioeconomic lines, and along geographical boundaries (for example, students in rural locations report lower levels of accessibility than those in urban locations.)

The Digital Divide is a real problem for many reasons. It has been cited as a major factor not only for education, but ultimately for economic equality, social mobility, democracy, and economic (business) growth. (Internet World Stats)  In short, being at a disadvantage when it comes to access to — and knowledge/interest in using — technology simply puts you at a disadvantage in life. Having, knowing, and using computers is no longer an optional luxury, it is absolutely imperative to survival.

Considering all of the research and data I have cited in previous posts on this blog (including the last one about the advantages of digital practice/homework), the following facts can pose a real obstacle to seeing the benefits of technology-enhanced education (and many schools are experiencing this):

  • Whereas ~87% of Asian and 77% of White households have internet access, those numbers drop to 67%, 61%, and 58% for Hispanic, Black, and Native American households. (White House Council of Economic Advisors)
  • Level of education for the head of household is an even more stark contrast: college-educated households (bachelor’s or higher) have 90% access, which tapers off significantly as the level of attained education decreases; where the head of household did not graduate from high school, less than 44% have access. (White House Council of Economic Advisors)
  • Likewise, income plays a factor: only 62% of households making less than $56k per year have access, compared to 86% of those making >$85k/year. (White House Council of Economic Advisors)
  • In a Pew survey of teachers, teachers of low income students tended to report more obstacles to using educational technology effectively than their peers in more affluent schools. (DigitalResponsibility.org)
  • Among teachers in the highest income areas, 70% said their school gave them good support for incorporating technology into their teaching. Among teachers in the lowest income areas, that number was just 50%. (DigitalResponsibility.org)
  • Fifty-six percent of teachers in low income schools say that their students’ inadequate access to technology is a “major challenge” for using technology as a teaching aid. (DigitalResponsibility.org)
  • Rural communities are also at a disadvantage. While high-speed (25mbps) internet bandwidth is accessible to 88% of people in urban environments, only 41% of those in rural environments have access. (White House Broadband Report)

5 Ways to Defeat the Digital Divide

While this problem is a real one, the solution is not to simply give up, nor to provide a sub-par education lacking technology and lacking 21st-century skills simply due to these constraints! To do so will only ensure that the digital divide — and the wealth/success gap — will continue.

I can tell you that it IS possible to overcome these obstacles because the student population I work with is about 80% Hispanic, 80% socioeconomically disadvantaged, and located in a rural/agricultural community!  Yet, slowly but surely, we are making 1:1 (and sometimes even paperless) edtech work! (Note: My school is in a Basic Aid / Excess Funding district, so is not as budget-crunched as some… but, as you will see, many solutions are cost-effective.)

  1. E-Rate. The government (FCC) created this program starting in the 1990s to make it easier and more affordable for schools to improve their infrastructure so that they can provide sufficient computer and internet access for students. If internet access or school network are the bottleneck, these discounts need to be used to ensure a sufficient infrastructure. Projects to upgrade local networks and high-speed broadband access are discounted at 20-90 percent off, or even better for disadvantaged schools.
  2. 1:1 devices provided by school budgets… or grant funding. Multiple studies have shown that sharing devices, such as at “workstations” or in a computer lab, is not nearly as beneficial and effective as having 1:1 computing (one device — tablet or computer, not smartphone — per student.)  A lot of schools and districts cite budget constraints for being unable to do so. Some might try to push for a “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device”) model, which inherently has many problems (one of which is outlined above: disadvantaged students may not have a device at all!)  If schools avoid trying to buy the more expensive devices (such as Macbooks or iPads), it is possible to obtain more devices and increase the rate of becoming truly 1:1.  For example, low-cost, easy-to-manage Chromebook laptops can be obtained for less than $170 each. If you are really looking to save money (or prefer tablet usage), inexpensive Amazon Kindle Fire tablets cost <$50.  If even these relatively paltry prices are somehow too much for the school to swing, there are funding possibilities via grants, such as DonorsChoose.org, or the $500 Gasser Grant  (this would buy 10 Kindle Fire tablets!)   NOTE: I would advocate that, if these devices are to be used in the classroom, they should remain at school instead of being sent home with the students. This prevents loss and damage.  However, a possibility for increasing home access could be to sell or give away the old models when it is time to upgrade and replace them with new ones. (Our school sold phased-out Chromebooks and iPads to students and families for about $20 each!)
  3. Computer lab access.  If providing 1:1 devices is not possible — especially for home/after-school use — why not make a computer lab available? A computer lab is something most schools have had — often for decades now. As long as it is located somewhere easy to monitor/manage (such as a media center), teachers or other supervisors could supervise the room and devices that can be made open even after school hours to enable online practice, research, and homework.  We do this at our school, providing a “Power Hour” of homework time (in the computer lab) that teachers take turns supervising (this is done via Boys & Girls Club and, although the teachers get paid for that hour of work, it costs less than our normal hourly rate of pay, and is funded through Boys & Girls Club instead of the school district budget.)
  4. Public libraries. Public libraries, too, generally have computers available for public use. The hours may be limited — and there may be a time limit — but anybody who has the transportation to get to the nearest library can generally have free computer/internet access.
  5. Discounted low-income broadband Internet services. Many families are hesitant to get Internet service at home because it is perceived as expensive and not a priority. Except for some truly remote locations where broadband simply isn’t available, this can be fixed! Parents and families need to be taught the educational and economic values of having an Internet connection, and there are various heavily-discounted broadband services that are available for low-income families!
    1. Click here to learn about Lifeline, the FCC subsidy for phone and internet access for low-income households
    2. Click here for another list of low-income broadband services that cost less than $10 per month (including AT&T, Cox, and other providers)

Based on my experiences, technology is so valuable for education that, personally, I would actually buy devices with money out of my own pocket (since they can be used for multiple years, a class set of Chromebooks comes out to a cost of about $1000 per year — less than the cost of a field trip! A class set of Kindle Fire tablets would cost about $250 per year… a one-night stay at most of the hotels in nearby San Francisco will cost you about this much!), sooner than allow students to go without any access at all.  That’s how crucial I have seen the role of educational technology to be.


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