In June 2013, President Obama unveiled his ConnectED Initiative. The objective of this program is to provide broadband Internet connectivity to 99 percent of U.S. students within five years. According to a White House press release, only 20% of teachers feel their classrooms have the Internet connectivity to meet their teaching needs.
The Economic Divide
Although the president has kicked off this initiative no additional funds have been earmarked to make this happen. Instead the president has directed the federal government to make better use of existing funds to get Internet into more classrooms.
Gerald Mann, director of Middle School Instruction for Alexandria, VA., spoke about unfunded mandates:
“I think it’s part of education, unfunded mandates,” he said. “No Child Left Behind was an unfunded mandate. In education you kind of get used to the “Thou Shalt,” but there is no money behind that.”
Reallocating existing funds may not be the best strategy. According to a 2013 report from eSchoolnews.com, 74 percent of respondents said their technology budgets are smaller now than they were five years ago.“When the economy took a hit you get less state money and counties are giving less,” Mann said. “The student population across Northern Virginia is increasing, but budgets aren’t keeping pace. So as school systems look for places to save money, you look at people versus equipment and that’s where technology budgets start to shrink.”
As a result of the shrinking budget, schools are rethinking rules against students bringing their own devices. Students who do have a tablet of computer will increase the need for bandwidth. However, only 15 percent of school officials reported having enough connectivity to meet even current needs. To address this problem the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) reports it has already spent over $4 billion, resulting in 10,000 schools in 44 states receiving or upgrading broadband access.
Another surprising issue is the problem of teachers unable to use technology. According to Mann, in the state of Virginia, there is no standard for teaching with technology. When asked if teachers are properly trained to use the technology, he answered flatly, “No.”
“What I found was that teachers who did not use a smartphone or weren’t constantly using some kind of device were a little weary of using it,” he added.
Students without home Internet are not exactly being left behind. Many of these students have smartphones which allow them to access the Internet. According to Mann, some devices are more powerful than a cheap computer. However, he states that there is a “big difference between knowing how to operate a smartphone and knowing how to create a PowerPoint presentation.”Mann disagrees that students are at a disadvantage when they don’t have computers or Internet at home. He believes that students get enough experience at school with computers to be able to apply for jobs and perform other tasks online.
The cost of Internet connectivity and computers is the biggest problem. A recent report by the NTIA showed 26 percent of respondents do not have Internet at home because they can’t afford it and 13 percent say they do not have a computer. On average, this group earned less than $25,000 annually.
Some schools have programs that issue laptops to students each school year. According to Mann, every high school student in the city of Alexandria is provided a laptop.
The County of Henrico, Virginia is also providing computers to its students. It has placed an order for 23,000 Dell laptop computers — enough computers for every high school and middle school teacher and student. The school district is also moving away from printed texts to digital textbook.
But, other school districts in the nation lag behind in adopting new technology. In 2012 Bronzeville Scholastic Institute in Chicago had only 24 computers to share among nearly a thousand students. Spending on school technology varies wildly from state to state, district to district, and even school to school. At Deerfield Public School District 109 outside of Chicago, 2,000 computers are provided for 3,100 students.
The Racial and Geographical Divide
According to Larry Irving of the NTIA, the digital divide is really a “racial ravine.” Irving points out that African-American and Hispanic households are only “40 percent as likely to have home Internet access as white households.” While almost all schools have Internet access, the number of students without it in their homes is a growing concern especially in minority homes.
U.S. Census data indicates that while 76 percent of white households had Internet only 58 percent of Hispanic homes had Internet and 56 percent of African-American homes had it.Black and Hispanics are not the only group caught on the wrong side of the divide. Native Americans are also greatly disadvantaged. According to Evans Craig of the Albuquerque High Performance Computing Center in New Mexico, only about one fourth of the homes on Indian reservations have basic telephone service.
Rural areas also find themselves lacking access to the Internet. According to the NTIA, people living in urban areas are 50 percent more likely to have Internet access than those living in rural areas.
Director of Instruction for Tunxis Community-Technical College in Connecticut, Dr. Margi Winters believes the digital divide may simply be a matter of choice.
“It’s my observation that it is a values divide,”she said.
Educator Sarah Phinney agrees:
“I don’t believe simply giving people computers is a very efficient way of closing the gap. Sure, this gets a computer in the home at someone else’s expense, but it does not address a person’s attitudes toward computers. You can give a person a computer, but if they do not see its value in their life and do not know how to operate it, chances are good that they will sell the computer to produce cash– something that everyone sees a personal value in.”
President Obama has requested $71 billion for discretionary spending in his 2014 education budget. Some of that money will go to the Federal Communications Commission Schools and Libraries Program (E-Rate). The program ensures schools and libraries can obtain telecommunications equipment, including high speed Internet at steeply discounted prices.
The 2014 budget for the program is $2.38 billion, but FCC officials say that demand is more than twice that amount. In 1997, when the E-Rate fund was created, only 14 percent of schools had Internet access. That number has risen to 95 percent.
E-Rate is a public and private partnership that is indicative of the kind of effort it will take to bridge the gap. Many companies are working to get Internet connectivity to poor and under-served communities.
Comcast recently announced it is going into the third year of its Internet Essentials program. The program has so far connected more than 900,000 low income Americans with an in-home Internet connection. However, just providing an Internet connection is not enough. The program has also provided 18,000 computers at a low cost.