Closing the Digital Divide to Ensure the Future of Learning

When I began my career over 10 years ago, one of my jobs was as a Business Analyst for Sprint Nextel (this was the company’s name at the time). The project I spent the most of my time on was the FCC mandated transition moving educational license holders from their current location on the band plan, to a new band which would essentially provide access to higher internet speeds (so simply put, getting better internet access to more students and schools). It was during that time and through talking with these educational organizations that I learned about the unequal access to broadband internet throughout the country and especially in schools. Sadly, today not much has changed, I experienced connectivity and capacity issues first hand when I worked in a Las Vegas high school earlier this year. The network access was so dire we had to carry around personal hotspots to have a reliable connection to the internet. But there is hope. Fortunately, more and more people are talking about the digital divide and action is being taken to ensure all schools have access to the technology and high-speed internet.

It is imperative that we work to make internet connectivity and capacity a high priority issue because if we don’t millions of students will be left out of the future of learning and future of work conversations. To bring light to the digital divide, National Geographic Channel recently aired the film “Without A Net,” which focuses on the reality many schools, teachers and students in this country face with subpar access to technology and internet bandwidth. Within the film, three critical challenges are presented that we all must work together to solve; 1) Securing up-to-date working devices, 2) if schools have hardware, they may struggle to get students online, and 3) teachers must be equipped with the skills they need to use technology effectively.

Challenge 1: Securing up-to-date working devices.

The film starts out with a tale of students in two districts in Pennsylvania. One student expresses her angst at being inadequately prepared for college given the lack of technology available at her school. She is frustrated because she feels like she could excel in school if she had access to computers on a consistent basis. In her math class, she states the only available tech is her calculator. Access to technology comes at home, or during her lunch hour when she skips eating to use the library computer to brush up on her skills. Meanwhile, in a district five miles away, students are working in a makerspace with robots, 3D printers and tablets. The students there admit they can’t imagine a school without technology because it would mean a very different type of education than they are used to, and their hopes for the future are very technology dependent. The only things separating these students is five short miles, yet the digital divide between them is enormous.

Consider this:

By 2020, 77% of all U.S. jobs will require computer skills.jpg

How will students be prepared with computer skills if they have inadequate access to computers while they are in school? If we are seeking learning experiences for students which are personalized, one element that must be part of the equation is access to technology. It will no longer do to have one roaming computer cart in which students receive limited time to do meaningful work on a device. As Tom Vander Ark explains, “for every student to have access to personalized learning, schools and districts have to make sure every student has equitable access.” This means providing students with access to a “three screen day” where they can access:

  1. Their own mobile device (for use in the classroom when appropriate)
  2. A device they can take home (tablet, laptop, Chromebook)
  3. Sharing screens in classrooms for group learning and presentations

Challenge 2: If schools have hardware, they may struggle to get students online.

We journey in the film to a small district in Alabama where a teacher is attempting to have her class use their tablets to participate in an activity using Kahoot. Unfortunately, the lesson fails because the internet either keeps buffering the app or students continually get kicked off the network. The teacher expresses that it is unfair what they have to go through in the district in terms of trying to get students connected online, that pencil and paper limit students, and that it hurts when she creates a lesson to engage her students and it doesn’t end up working.

Consider this:

11.6 million students lack the minimum bandwidth for digital learning.jpg

The FCC’s E-rate program has helped schools and libraries purchase affordable broadband leading to more schools actually being connected. As Education Superhighway’s “2017 State of the States” report points out, in 2014 the E-rate program was modernized to include connectivity goals. The goals were as follows:

  1. Higher KBPS: “100 kbps per student of Internet access, the minimum recommended bandwidth to enable digital learning in the classroom.”
  2. Fiber Connections: “Fiber connections to every school, so that school bandwidth can reliably grow over time.”
  3. Wi-FI Connected Classrooms: “Wi-Fi in every classroom to support one-device-per- student programs.”

According to the Education Superhighway report, 94% of public school districts are meeting the 100 kbps per student threshold, which is the FCC’s minimum amount of internet access. With this amount of access, what can a school be expected to do? With this level of bandwidth, schools can deploy technology usage in individual classrooms. Per Education Superhighway’s guidance to districts on how much bandwidth they need, this means  “sufficient infrastructure and devices exist to facilitate basic and media-rich assessment or classroom use, but not all classrooms at the same time.” So essentially we return to the “one computer cart per school, for one classroom to use at a time” model. In order to ensure the future of learning is available for all students, the focus must now be on increasing internet capacity.

Challenge 3: Equipping teachers with the skills they need to use technology effectively.

Even if there is sufficient technology within a school building, and there is high-speed internet available throughout the entire building, many teachers still have not had the experience using that technology or are comfortable facilitating learning experiences for students that integrate technology in a meaningful way. They need professional learning, too.

Consider this:

We must invest in our teachers to provide them with the skills they need to thrive with technology, but we must do so in a meaningful way. As we describe in our Smart Bundle on Rethinking Professional Learning, “professional learning needs to reflect what we want for young people – learning that is engaging, relevant and focused on the needs of students and educators. Further, quality professional learning is personalized, competency-based and practical.”

Solving these challenges requires a massive effort, but it is not impossible. Great strides have already been made, and we need to continue on that path in order to make certain all students can succeed in the future. Communities will need to come together to advocate for equal access to technology and the internet. Funding will need to be secured in order to cover the cost of improvements, and businesses and nonprofit organizations can continue to partner with schools and districts to help make that happen. Young people should not have to fear to get into college, or being prepared for a career because their school lacks the capability to deliver the future of learning.

At Getting Smart “we believe students deserve a world-class class education with access to high-quality teachers, learning environments and tools. We believe that strong communities and parental support, and that the development of strong educational ecosystems designed for innovative schools and next-generation ideas help support equity and access.” We hope you will join us in advocating for closing the digital divide to ensure the future of learning for all students, regardless of their zip code.

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Janice Walton

Janice is passionate about ensuring equity and access in education and the majority of her career has been spent advocating for increased opportunities for educators and their students, specifically in the areas of teacher leadership, global education and STEM.

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