Unlocking the potential of ConnectED through an inclusive approach.
GUEST COLUMN | by Zach Leverenz
“We need you to make sure our children, when they leave school, are not living in a different century than more affluent kids.” —Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Last week, President Barack Obama announced the Federal Communications Commission would reform the E-Rate Program to quickly meet the goals of the President’s ConnectED initiative. These changes will double the amount of money devoted to providing high-speed broadband to 20 million students over the next two years. The plan aims to solve one of the most critical issues facing U.S. education: equitable access to new classroom technologies.
For the first time in the over 20 years since the ‘digital divide’ entered our collective lexicon, the problem is 100% solvable.
Classrooms connected with next-generation broadband will allow teachers to pursue the best interactive, individualized learning strategies and employ real-time assessments of student progress. These are proven tools for improving educational outcomes, but the pedagogical models ConnectED aims to empower are dependent on students’ access to the Internet and devices after the school day ends.
Unfortunately, this is a dangerous dependency to carry into a national K-12 transition to digital learning. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 18% of middle and high school teachers reported that their students had sufficient access to the Internet at home. Not surprisingly, teachers of the lowest-income students are the least likely to report that their students have sufficient access at home. Pew reports that income remains the primary indicator of whether a family will have home Internet access – only 54% of households with incomes of $30,000 or less have a home connection.
The teachers in Pew’s study report overwhelmingly that low-income students’ lack of access at home is a “major challenge” to incorporating more digital tools into their classroom teaching. Even when we bring the best technology to every classroom, the digital divide is limiting our teachers’ abilities to fully leverage these tools. We risk deepening existing achievement gaps for low-income students without an approach that creates digital equity both inside and outside of the classroom.
Despite understanding the access gap, teachers are forging ahead with digital learning content and curricular strategies. Eighty percent of teachers now require students to access and submit assignments online. This means our most marginalized students are being further disadvantaged, even while the technologies that promise to improve their educational outcomes are being embraced.
For many low-income students, accessing the Internet after school often means bus rides to public libraries. While this is a priority for many libraries, who hope to move from “collections-to-connections” to better meet patrons demand, the Internet and computers are often too old and slow. Computer stations are sometimes only available in 30-minute increments and operating hours are limited. This is not a sustainable solution.
When public options are scarce, students seek out local businesses with free Wi-Fi. In urban and rural low-income neighborhoods, this is usually the closest McDonalds – hardly a conducive learning environment. The Wall Street Journal chronicled this fast-food, fast-Internet trend last year, and featured this Facebook post from one parent: “Sitting in McDonald’s parking lot so Olivia can use Wi-Fi to do homework and email her teacher. I love the poor life.”
Make no mistake, ConnectED and the interactive, individualized learning it enables will equip students with the skills they need to compete in a global economy. President Obama, along with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, should be commended for mobilizing this massive effort. To truly unlock the game-changing potential of ConnectED, we must guarantee every student has access to affordable Internet at home.
Here’s the silver lining in the cloud: For the first time in the over 20 years since the “digital divide” entered our collective lexicon, the problem is 100% solvable. With nearly ubiquitous coverage, dropping costs, and unprecedented alignment of public-private will, we can provide affordable access to every student.
We have been working hard at EveryoneOn to design an inclusive approach, allowing educators to engage all their students — regardless of their socioeconomic status. We established relationships with some of the nation’s leading Internet service providers and tech giants, including Microsoft and Sprint, to offer home Internet service for as low at $10 per month to 36 million households in 14,000 low-income ZIP codes.
In parallel, EveryoneOn developed a process that allows organizations to deliver the low-cost offers to their entire constituency regardless of where they live. We encourage you to visit everyoneon.org/partner to learn how to partner with us to close the digital divide in your community. Access to the Internet is access to opportunity. We must not allow the democratizing power it provides to be lost.
Zach Leverenz is Chief Executive Officer of EveryoneOn. EveryoneOn is a national nonprofit working to eliminate the digital divide by making high-speed, low-cost Internet, computers, and free digital literacy courses accessible to all unconnected Americans. To learn more about EveryoneOn, visit everyoneon.org.