The Internet has revolutionized the way students are educated. In the late 1990’s, fewer than 14 percent of schools were connected to the “information superhighway.”
Now, Internet access in schools is nearly universal. However, lack of high-speed access both in the classroom and at home remains a roadblock to learning. How these shortcomings in digital access and education are addressed in the coming years will have an enormous effect on participation in both our democracy and in the global economy.
The Best Educational Software is Nothing Without Bandwidth
High-speed connections aren’t enough if they can’t support the number of devices being used. And while the Telecommunications Act (revised in 1996) requires better online access for schools, it’s silent on bandwidth requirements. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that up to 80 percent of schools and libraries operate at bandwidths that aren’t sufficient for their needs.
Tech companies, meanwhile, are developing learning platforms and content very quickly, but often, these products are developed on the companies’ high-speed networks. In classroom settings with slow networks, the software doesn’t perform optimally, leaving teachers and students with a substandard experience and sending would be innovators back to the drawing board.
The Homework Gap
Then there’s the digital divide in the homes of students, which I refer to as “the homework gap.” Low socioeconomic status households tend to have mobile access points at home, not desktops. All the educational technology in the world is only marginally useful if underprivileged students don’t have the connectivity to use them at home. Students often wind up struggling to complete homework on a mobile device. How do you apply for college on an iPhone?
There’s no easy solution to the homework gap.
When it’s ignored, teachers assume all students have high-speed access at home and assign digital homework anyway. This can result in students struggling to complete assignments on a mobile device—or giving up and not completing them at all. If teachers recognize this imbalance and don’t assign electronic homework, all the school’s students run the risk of falling further behind their digitally educated peers.
The Importance of Early Education
Lack of connection at home also hampers early childhood education, which is especially crucial to lower-income students. Research by the RAND Corporation finds that well-designed early childhood interventions generate a return to society of up to $17 for each dollar spent. It could be said that by the time a child enters kindergarten, it may already be too late to influence some important life outcomes. Digital access to early education can help overcome obstacles of transportation and access faced by lower-income parents.
Our Current Solutions Deserve a “C”
Government and private industry are working together to remove the access roadblock from America’s schoolrooms. The White House initiative ConnectED is designed to increase access and connectivity to schools across America, with a goal of providing high-speed wireless and broadband to 99 percent of students within the next four years. Additionally, ConnectED seeks to train teachers and to use the technology for real-time assessments to improve classroom instruction. Tech giants such as AT&T, Google and Apple are making in-kind donations while developing school-friendly products.
Many schools have been reimbursed for bandwidth and related technology by E-Rate, an FCC program to help make information services affordable for schools and libraries. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has called for a complete reboot of the program, using the name “E-Rate 2.0.” Rosenworcel’s proposal includes additional funding, but also changes other aspects of the program, such as encouraging a greater number of private-public partnerships that would bring cost-effective technology to schools and expanding the scope of the E-Rate program to allow schools to keep their doors open after hours so that community members can access the internet.
If the private sector is going to play a significant role in providing universal access to high-speed broadband, now is the time to engage in a meaningful dialogue between public and private sectors.
On a Global Scale, We’re Already Behind
In South Korea, all schools have high-speed Internet connections, teachers are trained in digital learning, and printed textbooks will be phased out by 2016. In Africa, wireless connectivity is bridging gaps and is leapfrogging over outdated wireline technology. In the 20th Century, the tools that enabled citizens to be full participants in our democracy required access to libraries and newspapers. Today, these tools require data access. Connectivity is crucial for coming generations.
Both the government and the private sector must ensure that we get it right.
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